Buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers
Specialist professions such as these are just some of the fascinating details about life in India which are revealed by the reports of the ten-yearly Census of India. It’s a familiar source of information, but each time I look at it, I am amazed by the way in which it records minute details about everyday life. The buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers feature in the tables of occupations in the 1891 report on the Punjab. Interestingly, the table of statistics records the number of people dependent on an occupation, including women and children, not just the people employed in the work. Buffoons were a great rarity with just 20 people in the British territory in the Punjab supported by their efforts to entertain. Ear-picking supported 144 people so this was also a minority profession compared with selling and preparing sherbet which provided for 2,047. ‘Undefined and disreputable’ occupations are listed, including prostitution which supported 6,193 men, women and children.
A Muslim barber, Add. 27255 f.211v
Education and literature supported 11,752 and 6,650 people respectively, and included teachers, authors, reporters, private secretaries and clerks, students and pandits. It is pleasing to note the inclusion of 'library service' under literature. However, people working in libraries may have been even more rare than ear-pickers, supporting only 121 people!
Portrait of Diwan Babu Ram with papers, books, pen-cases and spectacles, Add. Or. 1264
Agriculture, manufacturing and commerce were of course the major sources of income. Civil and military service, ranging from people employed as officials and officers to ‘menials’, provided for 182,239 people while ‘professional’ occupations supported 135,834. Reflecting the almost obsessive drive to gather and organise information, these figures are broken down into sub-sections. For example, professional occupations include religion, education, literature, law, medicine, engineering and surveying, other sciences, pictorial art and sculpture, music, acting and dancing, sport, and finally exhibitions and games, which is where I found the buffoons. A separate table shows how people combined an interest in the land with other occupations. Regional variations are revealed by the statistics for individual districts. These statistics, far from being dry and boring, provide a fascinating snapshot of life in the Punjab in 1891.
Summary created from the detailed statistics relating to Districts and States
Census of India, 1891: the Punjab and its Feudatories, Vol XIX Part II: Imperial Tables and Supplementary Returns, IOR/V/15/46
The Punjab volume of the 1891 Census of India includes text which explains the methodology underlying the statistics and makes observations on history and society. Subjects include population, religion, marriage, health, language, migration, occupations, and of course the perennial obsession – castes, tribes and races. Maps illustrating population changes, migration, religion, the distribution of lepers and blind people, and the proportion of male to female children highlight the interests of the British information-gatherers.
Frontispiece to Census of India, 1891: the Punjab and its Feudatories, Vol XIX Part I, IOR/V/15/46
Although the Census of India reflects British preoccupations, observations and understanding of India, imaginative reading of the source provides marvellous insights into how people lived and worked. It is also a reminder of the importance of knowledge in maintaining a position of power.
IOR/V/15 Census Reports 1853-1944
These comprise the decennial census of India 1871-1941 and a few earlier provincial census reports.
Lead Curator, India Office Records