Dr Kalathmika Natarajan
Lecturer in Modern South Asian History
As a historian of modern South Asia, my research and teaching interests bring together the fields of migration studies, diplomatic history, and imperial and global history. I am interested in critical, bottom-up approaches to diplomatic history and international relations: my work locates histories of migration across the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean as central to the making of postcolonial diplomacy.
I am currently working on a book provisionally titled Coolie Migrants and the Making of Indian Diplomacy (forthcoming with Hurst). The book provides an alternate framework for Indian diplomatic history by recovering the figure of the 'coolie' migrant - foregrounding histories of indenture and the regulation of mobility as intrinsic to postcolonial Indian diplomacy. It argues that Indian notions of the ‘international’ realm were shaped by the journeys of migrants and therefore remained a space of anxiety defined by a caste-coded paranoia over the mobility of the ‘coolie’.
My research has therefore been concerned with foregrounding caste in histories of migration and international relations. My new interdisciplinary project titled 'A Global History of Repatriation: Migration, Mobility, and the Spectre of 'Return' across the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean' delves into the entangled journeys of over a million repatriates from British colonial territories and Commonwealth nations ‘back’ to the Indian subcontinent in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Having grown up in Tamil Nadu, I remain besotted with the many coastal, anti-caste migrant histories that intertwine Madras, Ceylon, Malaya, and Burma and have learnt much from interrogating Indian diplomacy and international relations from this vantage point.
I am also one of the co-directors of the Exeter South Asia Centre.
My research interests are shaped by my interdisciplinary training in history and international relations. I am especially interested in critical approaches to diplomatic history and histories of caste, migration, and mobility. My Modern Asian Studies article exploring the history of India's postcolonial passport regime through its efforts to prevent the mobility of ‘lower’ caste and class migrants received an honourable mention for the 'Best Article' award (2024) by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
My research is also concerned with addressing the neglect/complicity over caste in studies of diplomacy and international relations. I am co-editing a special issue on 'Caste and Diplomacy' along with Pavan Kumar (Ambedkar University) and Vineet Thakur (Leiden University) for the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. With my colleague Medha (Shiv Nadar University), I have completed work on an article that problematises the uncritical use of the term 'pariah' as a conceptual category in international relations and diplomacy.
I have also been working on collaborative projects that expand on my interests in South Asian migration and mobility. I have received SCI funding to host a grant workshop in summer 2024 for an interdisciplinary project titled A Global History of Repatriation . While migration across the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean has been the subject of intensive study, much of the scholarship has regarded this as synonymous with outward (e)migration and the formation of diasporas. This project therefore seeks to shape new directions in migration studies by tracing the diverse yet intertwined journeys of repatriates across South Asia, South-east Asia, South Africa, Guyana, and Fiji through the late colonial and postcolonial periods (1871-1973). It adopts a critical, multi-lingual focus that centers caste and mobility and will draw on local archives and a range of source material in South Asian languages such as Tamil, Bengali, and Hindi to recover these repatriate histories.
I am also a member of the Beyond Partition working group of scholars examining histories of migration, citizenship and mobility in South Asia post-1947.
I am open to discussing research proposals on any relevant subject given my interdisciplinary research expertise. I welcome PhD proposals from candidates with broad interests in the colonial and postcolonial history of South Asia. In particular, I would be happy to work with candidates focusing on the following areas:
- South Asian migration and diasporas
- Caste, mobility and borders
- Critical approaches to diplomatic history and international relations, with a particular focus on South Asia.
My research-led approach to teaching at Exeter covers various aspects of modern and postcolonial history. I foreground a range of primary sources including music, cinema, oral history, poetry, archival documents, and material culture as key avenues through which to examine modern history in general and South Asian history in particular. I offer the module Body, Border, Partition: Understanding Violence in South Asia which examines the Partition of colonial India and the violent carving of its borders through archival documents, cinema, literature, memoirs, photographs, oral histories, maps, and music.
In my previous role as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, my course India: Raj, Rebellion and Ryot, which traces the history of India from 1700 to 1947, was nominated for the 'Outstanding Course award' in 2021 as part of the Edinburgh University Students ’ Association teaching awards.
- HIH1420 - Understanding the Modern World
- HIH1618 - Body, Border, Partition: Understanding Violence in South Asia
- HIH2001 - Doing History: Perspectives on Sources
- HIH3333 - Heroes
- HISM482 - Empire and Globalisation
I studied Journalism in Chennai, India before going on to pursue a Masters degree in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and a PhD in History at the University of Copenhagen. I defended my doctoral thesis titled Entangled Citizens, Undesirable Migrants: The Imprint of Empire and Afterlives of Indenture in Indian Diplomacy in June 2019. Before joining Exeter in 2021, I was a Teaching Fellow in South Asian History at the University of Edinburgh where I designed and taught a range of courses that approached South Asian history and politics from a bottom-up lens.
I also have experience working with think tanks and research institutes based in India such as the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and received a Sarai fellowship from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.