A Social and Economic History of Darzis (Muslim Tailors) in Calcutta, 1887-1967

The field of migration studies is dominated by research about mobility and movement. The opposite human condition, immobility, has hitherto occupied a marginal position in the historiography. The main focus so far has been on the barriers that nation-states erect to protect their borders against migrants from poorer, conflict-ridden countries, whether economic migrants, asylum-seekers, or refugees. States’ efforts to police their borders represent only one aspect of restricting mobility. There are many ways in which the state can be subverted, rules circumvented, making borders more porous and enabling movement, albeit at the cost of grave risk to life and limb. Few studies have examined immobility and staying on, and those that have done so focus on the context of ‘being stuck’, ‘ghettoised’, ‘stranded’ on the ‘wrong’ side of the border.

In Indian labour historiography on textile production and artisan adaptability, master      weavers, among other artisans and craftspeople, have received considerable attention. Recent works have shifted the focus away from production towards consumption: new forms of demand for consumer goods; new markets for particular commodities across rural and urban terrains; historical transformations in consumer behaviour; and how all of this has      influenced the larger social history of South Asia.

Tailors, however, fall through the cracks of both these historiographies on consumption and on production. While weavers produce cloth, tailors turn cloth into fitted garments for an array of consumers to suit a range of purposes. This end of the production line is often obscured by an overemphasis on mechanised manufacturing and ready-made clothing. And yet, it is local tailors who meet the sartorial demands of patrons across social classes for bespoke garments: from tailored suits to everyday wear.

My doctoral thesis brings together two bodies of scholarship: on immobility, and on artisan capitalism. Darzis (Muslim tailors) and Dawoodi Bohra (a group of Mustali Ismaili Shia) merchants who stayed on in Calcutta between 1890 and 1967, are at the heart of this study. They are shown to be resilient survivors rather than passive victims of ghettoisation and state control in the aftermath of India’s partition in 1947.

Without undermining the real predicament of immobility – entrenched poverty, physica frailty, obligations of care-work, communal intimidation and everyday indignity – the thesis demonstrates how some Muslim tailors thrived in constrained contexts. It examines their strategies of survival and negotiation through what I describe as ‘immobility capital’, a cluster of assets which consist of: (a) locational incentives and ‘mythic resources’; (b) a knowledge of material culture and consumption practices; (c) the ‘property of skill’; (d) a mastery of small technologies, such as Singer sewing machines; and (e) patronage networks, such as with Dawoodi Bohra outfitting firms.

Not every tailor had every asset. For instance, a tailor with a skill did not necessarily have a patron, but adapted the skill in response to changing market demands for particular commodities. Together these artisan communities were able to transform their assets into sufficient ‘immobility capital’ to stay on, and sometimes flourish, in independent India.

A major challenge when writing about darzis is their opacity in conventional archives. Their liminal status in official sources perhaps has to do with the problem of disaggregation in colonial census enumeration and artisans’ reclassification of their skills along caste and occupational categories. For instance, in early census records (1901-1941), tailors were lumped together under one category of ‘Industries of Dress and The Toilet: tailors, milliners, dressmakers and darners’. In some Bengal District Gazetteers from the same period, darzis represented an ‘artizan caste’ [sic]. In early twentieth-century accounts of Anglo-Indian life in colonial Calcutta, a darzi was also a ‘servant in a European household’.

The thesis has relied on a wealth of materials, much of it hitherto unused, from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) Collections at the University Library, Cambridge, and the Centre of South Asian Studies archive, Cambridge. These include British and Anglo-Indian memoirs, home manuals, photographs and private papers on accounts of colonial life in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal. I have juxtaposed some of these sources with more ‘traditional’ records, such as censuses and gazetteers, to demonstrate how and why the darzi seems to be more visible in, for instance, Englishwomen’s memoirs. In the censuses they are far more elusive, indeed all but invisible.

I sought out the life histories, hitherto undocumented, of Muslim tailors and long-standing Dawoodi Bohra outfitting firms. In so doing, I have curated a little archive of my own: oral history interviews with third generation Calcutta Muslim tailors and outfitting businesses, newspaper advertisements, vernacular tailoring manuals, photographs of tailors in their workshops, and shop hoardings. All pulsate with stories about the importance of place, staying on and the survival strategies of Muslim communities.


My immediate post-doctoral plans include writing a book-chapter entitled ‘Staying On and “Immobility Capital”: Muslim Darzis (Tailors) in Calcutta, 1947-1967’ for the Routledge Handbook of South Asian Migrations (forthcoming 2023), edited by Ajaya K. Sahoo. Another potential initiative is an exhibition of the photographs I took as part of my fieldwork, accompanied by short narratives and discussions on the labouring lives of darzis in South Asia.



An apprentice to a master-tailor at a tailoring workshop in central Calcutta. (Photograph taken by the author on 20 June 2019).