Mid-Research Update

Hello again from Juliana Lu! This is my second update regarding my research under the Unstable Archives project. Led by Professor Megan Robb, this project seeks to digitize a rare family collection containing the personal artifacts of Elizabeth Sharaf un-Nisa, a native Indian woman who married a European man and moved with him to Britain. More broadly, it seeks to study the lives of women like Sharaf un-Nisa who cohabited with European men during the colonial period. Studying these relationships is essential to understand colonialism in India — interracial relationships provide important examples of cultural mixing, while Western anxieties surrounding racial hybridity and the policies that arose to regulate it greatly influenced the development of colonial India itself.

For the first part of my research, I studied academic literature concerning native women in colonial India. The first book I read was Sex and the Family in Colonial India by Durba Ghosh. Here, Ghosh compiles her archival research about the dynamics of relationships between European men and Indian women. The second book I read was Gender, Slavery and Law in Colonial India by Indrani Chatterjee. While Ghosh’s book focuses on the nuances of interracial relationships, Chatterjee explores the definition of slavery in colonial India, particularly for children and female domestic slaves. Like Ghosh, Chatterjee discusses conjugal relationships between native Indian women and their colonizers. However, while Ghosh summarizes multiple different cases of interracial relationships in which women held small but varying amounts of agency, Chatterjee focuses on the interpretations of domestic slavery where the women held very little power at all.

The next part of my research included digitally transcribing artefacts from Sharaf un-Nisa’s collection, including the penmanship notebook she used to practice writing in English. I found this task fascinating, as such a personal item, with its spelling errors and messy handwriting, humanized a historical figure in a way that no amount of reading could. I was also interested in learning the nuances of the transcription process, which we encoded in Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)-compliant XML format. Overall, I enjoyed working on this project so far, as my interest lies in the intersection between programming and the humanities. With “Unstable Archives,” I can use digitization to preserve the evidence of Sharaf un-Nisa’s life as she lived it — a rarity when records of the native Indian companions to European men are few and far between.

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About Juliana Lu

Hello! My name is Juliana Lu, and I'm an undergraduate (C/O 2024) from Dallas, Texas. Currently, I'm studying cognitive science and computer science at the University of Pennsylvania. My research with the Unstable Archives project focuses on the digitization and archival representation of gender in colonial empires, particularly in South Asia.