False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma review: An alternative princely drama

Through Ravi Varma’s paintings, a historian explores how princes, their queens and ministers deftly played the chess game set by the British Raj in pre-Independent India

Published - April 16, 2022 04:54 pm IST

A dot here, a daub there and a brush stroke later, Manu S. Pillai brings to life the world of princely India between the Great War of Indian Independence and India’s Independence in his latest book False Allies.

The book is a revelation about an India caught between the mandarins of the Raj, the rising scribal class of Indians and five princes as it follows the footsteps of Raja Ravi Varma. While Ravi Varma may be credited with creating the images of Hindu mythology, it is his commissioned work in royal households that Pillai uses to tell a tale that’s different from the one we are used to hearing and reading.

Pillai, who also happens to be a Malayali, uses the artist’s life and work as a sutradhar (a connecting thread) between the kingdoms of the five princes. He smashes the notion that the royalty of pre-independent India was only about exotic lifestyles, indulging in baubles of extravagance or wasting away in a haze of opioids. Instead, a complex nuanced world is revealed using the royal goings on in Travancore, Padukkottai, Baroda, Mysore, and Mewar. Pillai shows the readers how the princes, their queens and ministers deftly played the chess game set by the British Raj.

Art as backdrop

A gorgeous collection of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings is used to show the courtly drama with the frame becoming the backstory of how a painting came to be. Indeed, one of the revelations in the book is how close the princely states were working towards a constitutional mode of governance based on laws, and not just royal whimsy as we have been previously led to believe.

Pillai shows the political savvy of Maharaja Sayaji Rao whose story is the stuff of dreams beginning as an illiterate farmhand to guiding the destiny of Baroda. “The system that divides us into innumerable castes... is a whole tissue of injustice, splitting men equal by nature into divisions high and low, based... on the accident of birth,” writes Pillai, quoting the Maharajah who supported the education of B.R. Ambedkar at one point of time. This description is a far cry from exotic images created by earlier historians. Describing the same prince, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre wrote in Freedom at Midnight: “The Maharaja of Baroda practically worshipped gold and precious stones. His court tunic was of spun gold and only one family in his state was allowed to weave its threads. The fingernails of each member of the family were grown to extraordinary length, then cut and notched like the teeth of a comb so they could caress the gold threads into perpendicular perfection.” It is this contrast that Pillai shatters with ease.

Pillai is in his element when he narrates the dealings between officials of the Raj and princes of Travancore. The jackfruit murder of Mavelikara brings alive his story-telling skill as he marshals his reference material to tell the tale which was sought to be wiped away by the royal house considering the tawdry nature of the crime. The 1862 crime where a man is beaten with a jackfruit on his abdomen and private parts provides the link between the House of Travancore and artist Raja Ravi Varma.

Sham fairplay

Then there is the restored maharajah of Mysore who loses his kingdom due to machinations of wily Raj officials. Then he regains it after a lengthy diplomatic battle over treaties and pledges. But not before there is a change of government in the British isles in 1866. By unravelling the inner working of the British Raj’s chicanery, Pillai shows that the notion of British fairplay was just a sham.

The author has unearthed a trove of interactions (the book has 128 pages of notes) between scribes, Dewans and Raj officials, to show how well the Indian royalty had not only mastered the language of their ‘masters’ but were also willing to challenge them.

The book is also a tale about the early adopters of English language in India: Brahmins. Pillai chronicles in some detail about the rise of two men, one of whom begins his career in the Accountant General’s office while his friend begins his as a clerk in the Madras Board of Revenue. These gentlemen end up becoming Dewans who help frame the policies of the kings. It is in their work that Pillai dwells on the minutiae of the bureaucracy and political diplomacy to flesh out the difference between the perception of royalty as cut off from reality to one of individuals aware of the nitty-gritty of realpolitik.

If one has to have a grouse about the book, it is the over-reliance of the author on sources in English, considering how much more loaded the courtly intrigue would be in the native tongue. Although a little late in the day, Pillai’s False Allies is a must read in these days where dozens of historians are being freshly minted every day.

False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma; Manu S. Pillai, Juggernaut, ₹899.


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