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 - thereby 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 where the state sought to negotiate the ‘shame’ of the coolie. Such a framework has shaped its central proposition – that the diplomatic history of postcolonial India is imbued with the afterlives and vocabularies of indenture/migration qua caste.
My research has therefore been concerned with foregrounding the category of caste in international histories of South Asia. I am currently working on a new research project that examines histories of caste, migration, and diplomacy from the vantage point of colonial and postcolonial Madras. Utilising Tamil and English archival sources from Madras, Ceylon, Malaya and Burma, I seek to interrogate how migrants conceptualised the 'international' realm and in so doing highlight a bottom-up approach to diplomacy and international relations.
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, modern South Asian and Indian Ocean history, and histories of caste, migration, and mobility. My article exploring the history of India's postcolonial passport regime through its efforts to prevent the mobility of ‘lower’ caste and class migrants has been published recently in Modern Asian Studies.
My research is also concerned with addressing the neglect of caste in studies of diplomacy and international relations. As part of this focus, I am co-editing a special issue on 'Caste and Diplomacy' along with Pavan Kumar (Delhi University) and Vineet Thakur (Leiden University) for the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. With my colleague Medha (Shiv Nadar University), I have been working 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 these research interests - I am a member of the Beyond Partition working group of scholars examining histories of migration, citizenship and mobility in South Asia post-1947 and co-organised our annual conference in June 2022 with Antara Datta (Royal Holloway).
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. In the 2023-24 term, I am offering 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.
- HIH1401 - Approaches to History
- HIH1420 - Understanding the Modern World
- HIH1618 - Body, Border, Partition: Understanding Violence in South Asia
- HIH2001 - Doing History: Perspectives on Sources
- HIH3632 - Violence
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.