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‘The British had a political and imperial incentive in casting the maharajahs as fools’: Manu S Pillai

The historian examines colonial stereotypes of Indian royalty in his new book False Allies: India's Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma -- and finds them wanting

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: October 24, 2021 8:49:06 am
Manu S Pillai, Manu S Pillai book, Historian Manu S Pillai’s new book False Allies, Indian maharajahs, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express newsPillai (Photo: SatyajeetV Patil)

The world of the Indian maharajahs has long been laden with colonial stereotypes of silken robes, frivolity and decadence. Set up by the British Raj, this image of the Indian princes was an important element required to cement colonial rule in India. After Independence, the makers of modern India, too, largely followed the British perception of the princes. Historian Manu S Pillai’s new book, False Allies, seeks to counter this image and examine the erstwhile age of Indian royalty as one of political sophistication.

Pillai, 31, begins his book with the moment in 1887 when Prince Asvathi Tirunal of Travancore attired in “English trousers and shiny shoes, with a dreary dark coat and pocket watch” climbed on a tricycle to pose for the painter Raja Ravi Varma. “Besides ear studs and an embroidered cap, there was no concession at all to the Western stereotype of Eastern opulence here,” writes Pillai, who also looks at four other major princely states besides Travancore — Pudukkottai, Baroda, Mysore and Udaipur — in the book. In this interview, Pillai speaks about why he chose to trace the age of the maharajahs through the works of Raja Ravi Varma, the princes behind the caricatures and the relationship the states shared with the British. Edited excerpts:

Why did you choose to write about the princely states in connection with the artist Raja Ravi Varma?

Ravi Varma was the perfect insider and link between multiple states. His sisters-in-law and granddaughters were royal, while his portrait enterprise took him to several states for work. Tracking his peregrinations was a method by which I was able to select five out of 100 major states, and study them and their rulers in detail. Otherwise, the book would have become too generic.

Manu S Pillai, Manu S Pillai book, Historian Manu S Pillai’s new book False Allies, Indian maharajahs, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Ramachandra, the Pudukkottai prince holding a copy of the Iliad in a Raja Ravi Varma portrait. (Courtesy: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation, from a private collection)

You write that bestowing titles and insisting on public fealty was necessary for the British to acquire legitimacy. What were the princes expecting to gain out of the treaties with the British?

Each state had different incentives. Travancore went in relatively early, to secure itself from Mysore’s aggressions under Tipu Sultan. Pudukkottai’s rulers were transitioning from chieftains to kings, and allying themselves to a superior force was a method to gain recognition. In Rajputana, many rulers under Maratha dominance had become weak, and their own vassals encroached on their power; British support helped them restore the vitality of their thrones — that is, by accepting British suzerainty, the rajahs regained their authority over subordinate chieftains. They gave up power in one sense to win some in another. Recently, the scholar Priya Atwal has shown how several Punjab states, too, faced with confirmed extinction at the hands of Ranjit Singh’s empire or survival in a truncated form with the British, chose the latter. It is all fascinatingly complex.

Manu S Pillai, Manu S Pillai book, Historian Manu S Pillai’s new book False Allies, Indian maharajahs, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Maharajah Chamarajendra Wadiyar of Mysore. (Photo courtesy: Manu S Pillai)

Were the princes aware of the caricatures they were being turned into by the British? If so, were there attempts on their part to alter that image?

Yes, many maharajahs took to wearing simpler clothes, to fight the stereotype of royal excess. One of the charges against Sayajirao III (Gaekwad) of Baroda was that he presented himself to the British king in a simple dress — he was expected to show up wearing colourful robes and diamonds. But he was allergic to being viewed as exotica. In Mysore, it was with pride that a publication announced that the ruler handled 900 files in his first year, disproving the idea that all the princes did were to sit idly on thrones. Even in the ways in which princes were depicted in art, one sees this: Ravi Varma’s portrait of the Pudukkottai rajah (1879) has him rest a hand on Homer’s Iliad, as if signalling ease with Western culture, while also in the distance showing the gopuram of his temple, hinting at a rootedness in tradition. The British had a political and imperial incentive in casting them as fools — historians must be apprehensive about such claims, especially when so much evidence exists of a princely pushback, subtle as well as obvious.

Manu S Pillai, Manu S Pillai book, Historian Manu S Pillai’s new book False Allies, Indian maharajahs, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Artist Raja Ravi Varma. (Photo courtesy: Manu S Pillai)

You mention that in states like Baroda and Travancore, the locals were happy with their rulers. How did they react to the news of their states acceding to the Indian union? Were there attempts made by the government to pacify them?

There was, of course, political agitation in these states as well, but standards of living were high — there was a sophisticated government infrastructure, investments in health and education that surpassed British-Indian standards, and even ambitious industrial projects. Politics did not revolve around nationalism but around local issues; often, around caste and communalism. Balances of power had to be managed within, but, even so, the very fact that the independent Indian government promised to preserve princely dignity through privy purses and privileges is important — it was not done to merely ‘purchase’ accession; it was also a signal that the rajahs would not be disrespected. This is not to say there were no bad eggs among the princes: only that many commanded genuine loyalty.

Manu S Pillai, Manu S Pillai book, Historian Manu S Pillai’s new book False Allies, Indian maharajahs, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news FALSE ALLIES : India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma; By Manu S Pillai; Juggernaut; 568 pages; INR 899

How did the Congress party perceive the royalty?

The Congress, by the second half of the 1930s, was hostile to the princes, but for a long stretch before that, there was regard. Various rulers not only made donations to it, but also spoke from the party’s platforms. GK Gokhale, MG Ranade, Dadabhai Naoroji and their generation saw the preservation of princely autonomy vis-à-vis the Raj as an important national issue. Nationalist newspapers often celebrated maharajahs and their dewans (ministers) who, through good governance, disproved the trope that ‘natives’ could not rule. Even Mahatma Gandhi was respectful of the princes well into the 1930s, and hesitant for the Congress to meddle in states’ politics. But into that decade, things changed. Several stereotypes peddled by the Raj were embraced by the Congress, too.

Some royal families around the world, such as the British royal family, have managed to remain relevant. Do the erstwhile princely states have any kind of relevance today in India?

There is, depending on where you look, often a religious and social relevance to the ex-royal families, and this appeal is also why so many princely descendants are politicians today. Some have used the cultural resources they possess — art, buildings, antiques — to reinvent themselves, but many have sunk into oblivion. That the age of the princes is over is not in doubt. What matters is to study their history and their states’ histories, because they, too, are part of India’s story and contributed to shaping our modernity. Mysore’s determined industrialisation was a legitimate form of fighting colonialism even if its ruler did not lead street agitation; Baroda’s support to anti-British elements was not an accident. Even if we wish to understand how Indian nationalism itself evolved, we would benefit by studying the princes.

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