As regular readers of the Mint Lounge, we miss Manu Pillai’s engaging column with a refreshingly different take on Indian history. The young historian is back with a new book – False Allies: India’s Maharajahs In The Age Of Ravi Varma. India’s princely states have been reviled by India’s freedom fighters for siding with the British to secure their own freedom and finances. This disregard for the Maharajahs has remained amongst our leadership’s thinking as Somak quotes from the epigraph of this book: “a scathing indictment by Indira Gandhi of the erstwhile kings and queens of India. “Go ask the Maharajas how many wells they dug for the people in their States when they ruled them, how many roads they constructed, what they did to fight the slavery of the British,” she said in 1967. “If you look at the account of their achievements before Independence, it is a big zero.””
Manu Pillai argues against this saying such an indictment lacks a nuanced understanding of the kings’ relationship with the Raj. In this interview, Pillai gives us glimpses of the book which should make for some great reading.
“Pillai’s revisionist history debunks the myth of India’s royal families being unqualifiedly mendacious, without glorifying them unduly. At the heart of his narrative is Ravi Varma (1848-1906), a highly sought-after royal portrait painter of his time who depicted several generations of India’s princely states. It is through his peregrinations that we learn about the shifting balance of power between the British Raj and Indian monarchies—a story that belies the blackened reputation of the latter in the last seven decades.”
Some excerpts from the interview:
“I don’t argue that the maharajahs were all great. But I do believe we have missed a tremendous chunk of modern Indian history by succumbing to colonial stereotypes about the princes, and because the emphasis is on national history as it played out in British India. But the 40% of the country that was under “indirect rule”—that is, governed by Indian royals in political subordination to the Raj—is part of the story too. And these spaces were home not just to dancing girls and elephants but also to debates on constitutionalism, ideas of modern kingship, and even the diverse methods by which colonialism was resisted. The maharajahs did not meekly do as they were told—if that were the case, why would the British regularly berate and depose (and, in one instance, beat to death) princes? As much as the Raj manipulated them, they too manipulated the Raj. Princes could conceal revenues, bribe officials, ritually demean colonial agents and find creative ways to mark resistance.
A maharajah had to negotiate with the Raj as much as he had to balance power interests, castes, religious groups, and others within. Caleb Simmons, in his Devotional Sovereignty (2019), analyses how kingship itself had to often be reinvented for different audiences—in one context a maharajah may look like a legal king, while in another he might use religion to burnish appeal. Ultimately, the princes were political figures, and to think of them as spoilt brats guzzling wine is a lazy reading.
Disruptions brought by colonialism affected not only royalty but also the economies, political structures and internal dynamics of their states. Many rulers at first struggled to adapt, but over time picked up skills—Mysore’s princes would continue their kingly Dussehra celebrations, going back to a Vijayanagara tradition, while hosting an industrial exhibition simultaneously to flaunt present-day achievements. Meanwhile, the British, who claimed they showered modernity on India as a kind of gift, had to “traditionalise” when it came to princely politics. They discovered that ritual details held powerful meanings, and feuded with maharajahs on the right to wear shoes in durbars; on whether their representatives should be seated on the left or the right of the throne, and at what distance; and so on. In theory, the British appear to be in stern control, lecturing the princes about becoming modern. But, in practice, they were eternally paranoid and fragile, particularly if the quality of a maharajah’s government rose above their own. The fact, then, is that “colonial modernity” was a perpetual negotiation, even if the field was tilted in terms of hard power towards the British.”

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