Childhood Studies History of Childhoods in South Asia
Divya Kannan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0284


The history of childhood is a relatively new field of scholarly inquiry in South Asia. Until a few decades ago, questions of behavioral formation, health, and schooling were perceived as the domain of developmental psychology and the pursuit of topics related to children and childhood were a largely relegated to graduate departments of educational studies. Although no dedicated academic departments or formal degree programs to study the history of childhood in South Asia currently exist, critical feminist scholarship and the field of history of education have provided significant impetus to the history of childhood and youth in the region, especially India, since the late 1980s. In particular, feminist historians have focused on questions of age of consent, colonial law, social reform, nationalism, and the making of middle-class identities in the 19th and 20th centuries and framed some key concerns shared by childhood studies scholars today. But they have not addressed the central issue of caste and religious inequalities pertaining to the fashioning of gendered childhoods. These are now gaining attention in recent historiographical shifts which have resulted in several historians, such as the authors of Ellis 2023 (cited under State, Policy, and Development) and Vallgårda 2015 (cited under Colonialism, Missionaries, and Education), drawing upon interdisciplinary methods to explore the complex contestations between adults and children of various castes, and constructions of childhood involving the British colonial state, Catholic and Protestant missionaries, Indian reformers, nationalists, caste associations, and various female education activists, and provided a rich roadmap for further study. Yet, the wide gap in global knowledge production and circulation in academia has often led to the propagation of Western assumptions of a “universal childhood” with its attendant norms and ideals. This has produced, sometimes uncritically, the representations of children in South Asia’s past and contemporary contexts as “helpless, weak, passive, and powerless,” rendering them as subjects incapable of becoming modern and determining their sociopolitical trajectories. Since the early 2000s, the opening of a new array of sources for critical study such as missionary archives and Indian-language material and a greater commitment to multi-scalar perspectives have resulted in the growth of this field of history of childhood and a greater acknowledgment of practitioners and activists working on and with children. In particular, the theorization of age as a useful category of analysis by Pande 2020 (cited under Gender and Sexuality) has challenged Western generalizations and assumptions regarding universal attributes of innocence and protection in colonial and postcolonial societies and complicated our understanding of unequal power arrangements. Who and what is a “child” and what constitutes childhood in South Asia? How can we trace changes in marriage practices, family organization, child-rearing, and schooling? Do “global” historical narratives of childhood and youth help bring into focus South Asian bodies and what histories do they obscure? These lines of inquiry have raised pertinent insights about the historically uneven processes of modernity in the region and the centrality of discourses on childhood in the production and reproduction of moral and labor regimes. Despite the lack of primary archival sources left behind by children in the past in South Asia, historians are piecing together narratives that foreground matters of child agency in negotiation with various structures of power by asking essential questions about the politics of childhood.

General Overviews

The current scholarship on the history of childhood in South Asia can be broadly categorized in relation to main historical actors in the 19th and 20th centuries. These include various European and American Christian evangelical missionaries, the colonial administrations in British-controlled provinces and princely rulers, reformers, educationists, community associations, and anti-colonial activists. In spite of their internal and mutual disagreements about the extent and nature of protection to children of various communities, the civilizing mission agendas of the colonial state and missionaries largely overlapped and were rooted in the ideology of racial difference. As Sen 2005 (cited under Colonialism, Missionaries, and Education) has noted, the plotting of these differences onto the bodies and character of Indian children labelled as “perverse, miniature adults” seeped into the colonial enterprise of child rescue and child-protection which determined the geographies of the “juvenile periphery” of the British empire. This was reflected in the varied schools and orphanages established for children of certain laboring castes and classes, and the nature of the curriculum and pedagogy adopted therein. British Orientalist and evangelical frameworks depicted South Asian children as “indisciplined, lazy, and backward,” subject to the abuses of their “ignorant and superstitious” parents, families, and local cultures. Such racialized prejudices perpetuated the notion that colonized children required some form of pedagogical intervention to reform and “rescue” them from their innate perversions. In justifying their educational and humanitarian campaigns for South Asian children of diverse hues, colonial adult pedagogues depicted them as constantly suffering from a “lack” or “defect,” which marked them as “productive failures” as they could never attain the desired goal of total character transformation. These campaigns were led mostly by Christian evangelical groups belonging to various denominational faiths and a few colonial administrators across the subcontinent. Historians of childhood have utilized the extensive Catholic and Protestant missionary archives to explore the complex cultural and religious encounters between missionaries and children, especially poor, untouchable caste communities, and their ambiguous attitudes. Most importantly, this scholarship has revealed the everyday politics of adult-child encounters such as the forging of emotional and philanthropic networks, and the notions of discipline and punishment embedded in colonial child-saving discourses. In recent years, scholars have also moved toward exploring legal and medical frameworks to understand the contestations over children’s bodies and sexuality and its implications for practices such as marriage and child-rearing. Critical feminist scholarship has also directed great attention toward unpacking gendered childhoods, and the relationship between religion, society, and girlhood. Much of the scholarship on the history of childhood is focused on India, barring a few accounts on education in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The works mentioned below have appeared in major journals of repute which are region and theme-focused, such as the Modern Asian Studies, South Asian History and Culture, South Asia, Childhood, The Journal for the History of Childhood and Youth, Children’s Geographies, Childhood, and Paedagogica Historica, among others.

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