Prajnya Gender Talks, February 2022 || Writing Histories of Childhood in India by Divya Kannan


February 2022

Rapporteur: Meghna Menon

Prof. Divya Kannan is a professor of History at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR. Her research interests are histories of childhood and youth, gender and sexuality studies, empires and colonial violence, histories of education, curriculum and pedagogy as well as public and oral histories. She is also the co-founder of The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC) which seeks to bring together academics and practitioners working with and on young people across South Asia. The Prajnya Gender Talks session on the 15th of February, 2022, focused on Writing Histories of Childhood in India, which aimed to navigate through the critical questions of how childhood is to be understood as a subject of historical study and on what the history of a child can tell one about Indian societies.

Prof. Divya started off by mentioning that the objective of the talk is to unsettle the commonplace assumptions revolving around the topic and to enable practitioners and academics to historicize childhood, by broadly outlining the field of histories of childhood, supported with examples from her work. She starts off the talk by stating that childhood is inherently political and is a temporary stage of life.

Childhood, she says, is a politicised category that requires navigating and understanding the power differences. Particularly in South Asian countries, the child, as a moral and social unit, is inherently subordinated to all power arrangements. This is the case until they take on the role of adulthood. Prof. Divya supports this by stating that the norms that govern a child are social and political constraints which shift across time, space, and cultural contexts. Each child, so, does not have the same kind of childhood. Additionally, Prof. Divya also points out that there are child labourers and children on the streets, and so, if everyone is a child and must be protected, a critical question is to understand how one must navigate through the idea of exploitative phenomena. For this reason, she says that childhood must be looked at as a concept that intersects with other identity markers like gender, ethnicity, language and caste. With this, the common notions of childhood are associated with nostalgia and ideas of good and bad memories, but at the same time, also include a comparison of the current generation and the worry about the future of society.  

At the crux of it all, Prof. Divya stresses that it is imperative to understand how childhood is located in the creation of a power-knowledge system. To add, it is also critical to navigate through the different kinds of childhood which are situated in systems rooted in social structures. 

The speaker also traced the trajectory of this field, from the pre-19th century views by Philippe Aries to the 19th-century industrialisation, which included aspects of institutionalisation through the educational system, ideas of state and social protection, as well as the emergence of the western and subaltern notion of children and childhood.

With this, the speaker brings the audience to an important question – why is colonialism important for us to study? Prof. Divya notes that this is because of the rule of racial difference, along with the notions of vulnerability and innocence that are cropping up in Europe. These are not applicable to the Indian child because of the deep-rooted racialized suspicion of the colonised population. There is this political and social infantilization of the Indian population at large during the 19th century and the early 20th century, and at the same time, the Indian child is seen as incomplete.

She also briefly covered the ideas given by various historians like Satadru Sen, Soni, Jessica Hinchy, Karen Vallgarda, Ishita Pande as well as Catriona Ellis on the themes of missionaries and childhood, marginalisation, and philanthropy. 

Prof. Divya Kannan says it is not that Indian children have less agency. It is this idea of minimal agency that the colonial state wants the colonised states to think. This colonised encounter mutually constitutes the coloniser and the colonised. This eventually makes the European children also be considered the saviours of brown children. 

Throughout the lecture, the speaker also talks about how children have to negotiate at various periods of their lives to survive. So, for us to understand the location of children’s agency, we must see it in relation to adulthood and other larger structures of power. Particularly in a country like India, women are infantilized. This, Prof. Divya, elucidates by giving an example of how an adult woman is described using words like “cute” and “bubbly”. 

Prof. Divya Kannan also presented the audience with photos from the Basel Mission Archives to navigate through the reproduction of caste-labour hierarchies in the Boarding Schools set up by the missionaries in Kerala. 

The session was concluded by Prof. Divya stating that to study the histories of childhood, one may refer to the missionaries’ archives (while being wary of the biases they hold) as they produce rich information. Additionally, information can also be retrieved through visual representations (print, TV), autobiographies (which are filtered memories), journals and periodicals. The study of the histories of childhood reveals to us how we are as a society, just like other histories do.

The questions that followed the session centred around understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic is connected to various historiographical journeys, and how a historian in 2072, for instance, may write about the histories of childhood in 2022. To this, Prof. Divya responded that the use of media would help articulate how the children felt about the pandemic. However, there is also a possibility of the population of children being lesser in number either due to conflicts (environmental, or otherwise) or due to climate change, particularly with the pandemic slowly becoming an endemic. It is also imperative to look into the learning gaps that persist, especially because technologies seem to be a boon only to children who are privileged to have access to the same. She also concluded by explaining the concept of determining agency as not just acts of direct, overt and loud resistance, but also as pockets of resistance, like children running away, children participating in movements and strikes and children disobeying their superiors.