Workshop on Understanding Labour: Region, Caste and Gender, Through Tamil History and Literature

Labour is of the streets, and comes alive through either protests or struggles, or through images of poverty, famine and suffering. It is a favored subject of study for students in political economy, and to a lesser extent economics, sociology and history. The sources for the study of labour have been myriad, and apart from interviews and surveys, archival records, policy documents, media reports and statistical information remain the most accessed.

We think that the study of labour and ways of understanding labour may benefit from looking at and accessing unusual and maverick sources: folk literature, fiction, art and craft, popular culture and so on. It also seems important to understand labour as part of a dynamic and ever changing reality, which means that we link the question of labour to various other questions, to do with the environment, community, family on the one hand and the politics of the body and sexuality on the other. This is important in the Indian context, where labour has as much to do with notions of high and low, pure and impure, honorable and dishonorable, as it has to do with skill and lack of skill, and with the formal and informal sectors.

This workshop will explore these other sources and contexts that are bound to enrich our understanding of labour. We will restrict ourselves to considering sources from Tamil and themes and contexts that have emerged historically in the South Indian context. We see this workshop structured around three modes of communication:


Labouring classes have seldom left behind their sense of their work, environment, worldviews and intimate and social relationships. However, both classical as well as contemporary literature in Tamil has portrayed labouring lives, which ’represent’ what may have been labouring sensibilities. How do we read this literature? What may we gain from such readings? Under this rubric, we hope to be able to have public readings from women’s texts, folk songs that sing of labouring lives, caste stories...all culled from classical and contemporary Tamil literature.

Presentations and Discussions

We hope to explore the following themes through discussions rather than completed arguments or papers: it is our hope that presentations address the question of sources and method as much as they do their chosen content.

1. The Question of Class, Caste and Labour (Lessons from the 1940s in Old Madras)
2. Understanding Female Labour : Relooking Sources
3. Organizing Labour : Views from the Field
4. Understanding the Tamil Labour Diaspora: Past and Present
5. Labouring for Art and Craft: the World of Caste Labourers vs. Wage Labourers
6. Labour seen from Archeology and History

Each of these topics may be addressed from the point of view of the past or present or both. Each topic may be explored by a single paper, or a panel of speakers. We welcome audience participation, especially from such members of the working classes as may be present.


Images and pictures are seldom treated as information sources. But they are. We hope to work towards understanding images thus. This workshop will host three Exhibitions:

  • Maps based on inscriptions, indicating areas and fields of production where slave labour was used in different periods of the South Indian past.
  • An exhibit based on Company Art and the People of India series, which features work, workers and their lives, in southern India.
  • An interactive digital map that indicates the journeys of the Tamil labour diaspora, then and now.

Click here for Tamil version.

Click here to view or download the session plan.


  • Department of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry
  • Tamilnadu - Puducherry Progressive writers Artists Association



Jawaharlal Nehru Conference hall, French Institute of Pondicherry