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‘The princely States were an ingredient in building the case for nationalism’: Manu S. Pillai

Manu S. Pillai   | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

When Manu Pillai published his first book at the age of 25, he made waves. That book, The Ivory Throne, won him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, and he quickly went on to write two more histories, Rebel Sultans, and The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin, both of which flew off the shelves, establishing Pillai as one of the country’s most precocious historical scholars. In his latest, False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma, Pillai continues to do what he does best — present history in a highly readable format, packed with details and stories, and in an easy conversational tone with lashings of humour. The book examines the role of the princely States in the churn that was India in the 18th and early 19th centuries, using painter Raja Ravi Varma’s stints in these royal courts as the leitmotif to hold it all together. Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you pick Ravi Varma as a lens to examine the princely States? And did this restrict who you finally chose for the book?

This was by design. Officially, the British listed 562 princely ‘States’, though only about 100 merited that term. Even that’s too large a number, and the vast diversity among the States — in terms of history, structure, political dynamics — meant I would need to focus on a smaller selection for a layered study. Ravi Varma proved useful here: he painted many rajahs; belonged to a princely State; and the courts in which he worked had distinct stories. Travancore, for example, where he began, was unlike Mewar, where he received one of his final commissions — the first was a bureaucratised State which internalised British ideas of governance, while the latter had a feudal system and a ruler hostile to Western models. Ravi Varma’s peregrinations also meant I could shortlist States from multiple regions, Rajasthan to Tamil Nadu, without having to choose arbitrarily. Following the painter therefore gave me a running thread, as well as an eclectic set of principalities.

Do you think also that Ravi Varma created the template for a certain idea of Hindu nationalism that would later be appropriated by its more virulent adherents?

As early as 1884, Sir T. Madhava Rao — one of the great statesmen of the age — suggested to Ravi Varma that he produce prints of his mythological works as a ‘real service to the country’. This was a time when our different languages, food habits, costumes, and even bathing styles were often presented as an obstacle to nationalism. By creating a more uniform visual imagery for Hindu culture, therefore, the idea was to energise the development of nationalism. Ravi Varma’s style drew not only from a highly Sanskritised reading of Hindu tradition, but also from Victorian influences. But I don’t think he consciously promoted religious nationalism; just as Gandhi — who also used a very Hindu vocabulary — did not mean to birth a nationalism limited to Hindus.

‘The princely States were an ingredient in building the case for nationalism’: Manu S. Pillai

In the book’s introduction, you mention that the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1940s urged fidelity to the princely States, seeing them as “embodiments of Hindu pride”. How do you think post-Independence nation-building might have played out if this trajectory had been followed?

While it is tough to speculate on what would have happened if the Mahasabha’s vision had triumphed, V.D. Savarkar conveniently wrote an essay with some hints. Albeit in an ‘academical’ context, it spoke of a ‘racial dream’ in which princely armies would unite to establish real ‘home rule’. In what seems a bit comical now, he pictured enthroning the Nepalese king as emperor. I think the idea was to construct an alternative idea of nationhood, where the Hindu identity (as modified by modern forces) would coalesce around Hindu kingship (representing continuity with the past, and thus legitimacy) to establish a new system. Naturally, this would be a nation of Hindus, for Hindus, and by Hindus, which is not different from what the Mahasabha’s political heirs still have in mind.

And what role, if any, did the princely States play in supporting the Hindu Mahasabha?

There was a growing engagement between the Mahasabha and the States in the 1930s and 40s, coinciding with a disengagement between the princes and Congress. For the Mahasabha, less-than-impressive political successes in British India meant that princely India became avenues where they could try their luck. In speeches and writings, Mahasabha spokespersons began to flatter princes, not coincidentally at the same time as Congress grew critical of them. Savarkar, in fact, promised that Mahasabha would ‘defend’ the States from ‘Congressites’, Communists, and Muslims. But even if Mahasabha meetings were hosted in states like Mysore, it was northern states like Alwar, Kota, and Gwalior that engaged seriously with the idea of an alliance, allowing the Mahasabha official and financial patronage. Ian Copland has observed how, even after 1947, these were also areas where the Mahasabha’s message had wide appeal.

  • Bachelor’s degree in economics from Fergusson College, Pune, and Master’s in International Relations from King’s College London
  • Worked in parliamentary office of Shashi Tharoor in New Delhi and with Lord Karan Bilimoria in London
  • Was a researcher for the BBC series, ‘Incarnations: India in 50 Lives’, presented by historian Sunil Khilnani
  • His debut book, ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’, is set to be a web-series

You make a case for the princes’ nationalism but wasn’t it too self-centred and absent of any unifying, long-term vision to be termed ‘nationalism’ at all?

I don’t speak of nationalism as a finished product but of its construction — nationalism, we often forget, had to be painstakingly developed in India. For a long stretch, from the days of Dadabhai Naoroji and M.G. Ranade till the 1920s, under Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel, why was it that nationalists saw the princes as allies and interlocutors in debates on India? Because princes did join the process. Visakham Tirunal of Travancore wrote of a future when the British would have to restore India to Indians; Tukoji Rao Holkar II of Indore funded the ‘patriotic exertions’ of Naoroji’s East India Association; Bikaner’s Ganga Singh talked so much about ‘self-government’ that the British had to ask him to stop; Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda acknowledged that for any Indian nation to emerge, the princes would have to go; and Mysore’s economic nationalism galvanised Indians, not just Mysoreans. The States were an ingredient in building the case for nationalism, at a time when many lampooned the proposition. By pointing to good governance in the States, for example, nationalists could puncture claims that ‘natives’ could not govern. ‘Self-centred’ is a term we might use now, given that in the end the rajahs were hesitant to give up power, but when we realise that till the 1930s, even most nationalists saw the States as legitimate political entities, their desire for self-preservation does not look unnatural.

As much as the princes, your focus is on the Brahmin dewans. What role did these powerful figures play, both politically and in perpetuating Brahmin hegemony in public affairs?

Rulers very often imported English-educated high-caste Hindus to help modernise their administrations and manage relationships with the British. But in the process, Brahmin bureaucrats could become powerful enough to threaten royal power. Their high status (which opened doors), mobility (many Brahmin communities were not tied to land), and early mastery over the English language placed them in a dominant position, both in princely territories and in British-ruled areas. Even earlier, Krishnaraja Wadiyar III of Mysore found, for example, his Brahmin officials getting pally with the British to clip his authority. In Pudukkottai and Travancore, locals complained of ‘foreign’ Brahmins who controlled the State. What is key here is that in princely States, we often picture rajahs doing as they pleased. However, no rajah had absolute power: everything, from the harem to tribal groups, tested his power in varying degrees. These internal workings of princely India are fascinating in terms of what they can tell us about our modern history — it is a pity that in the overwhelming attention paid to British-ruled India, we have ignored the 40% that was Indian-ruled India.

The dewan-prince duality plays out in an interesting way in Pudukottai, where Dewan Seshiah Sastri’s puritanical impatience with the Kallars mimics the British.

English educated Indians had grand ideas for the future but were also deeply conscious of criticism of Indian society. A Brahmin statesman like Sastri, therefore, was not just interested in building roads and canals; he also wanted to transform kingship in a way that it remained recognisably Hindu while expunging whatever the West criticised. As for Kallars, the British branded them a ‘criminal’ caste. Ironically, in Pudukkottai, Kallars were royalty, and Sastri’s reconstitution of kingship meant Sanskritising them and erasing ‘unsavoury’ aspects, even if by coercion. One is reminded of Ashis Nandy’s statement that under colonialism, ‘the ruled are tempted to fight their rulers within the psychological limits set by the latter.’ Sastri resisted British inroads into the State, but implicitly admitted imperial claims that Indians needed to be ‘reformed’. In a sense, like the white man pretended to ‘save’ Indians, the Brahmin minister was trying to ‘save’ non-Brahmin kings from their ‘backward’ culture.

Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar is one of the princes covered. What role did the Raj play in romanticising the Rajput image?

Fateh Singh was a flawed but charismatic figure. He knew that English-educated Indian ministers might reduce kingly power, so he refused to appoint ministers and ruled through secretaries. He hated the English language, the railways, roads, anything the British paraded as progress — he wanted instead to preserve the Rajput order. Interestingly, because the British romanticised the Rajputs, he was able to use that aura against them: for decades, the British could only mumble in frustration because he cordially ignored their ‘advice’. The Raj saw Rajputs as ‘good’ Hindus, as formidable military men, and as a ‘loyal’ community that would support the empire. Men like James Tod constructed heroic narratives around them, which subsequent generations of British officials bought into. Naturally, Rajputs used this to their advantage.

How do you see yourself? As a historian, chronicler, or a narrator of entertaining historical stories?

Chronicler is a dated term. I see myself as a historian who also enjoys making history accessible and interesting to audiences outside of academic spaces.

You use what I think of as an anecdotal approach to history writing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?

I would not call it anecdotal. Good history comes from a combination of sources: in this case, private papers ranging from Lord Curzon’s letters to the diary of a royal tutor; from archival records in Delhi and London, not to speak of parliamentary papers; art, and not just paintings by Ravi Varma, to understand how princes projected themselves; newspaper records, which contain debates and ‘live’ commentary; scholarly material on connected themes; and, of course, anecdotal information from biographies and memoirs, which add texture. Any advantages and disadvantages are those which would afflict any kind of history writing.


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