EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Author & historian Manu S. Pillai on ‘False Allies’, Raja Ravi Varma, Indian royalty during the British Raj, and more – Times of India

Manu S. Pillai, author, and historian needs no introduction. His debut non-fiction book, ‘The Ivory Throne’, won him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2017. His second work, ‘Rebel Sultans’, narrates the story of the Deccan from the close of the 13th century to the dawn of the 18th century. ‘The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin’, Pillai’s third book, covers characters from the various layers of India’s past, bringing to life appealing and unconventional historical figures.

However, it is Pillai’s latest book – ‘False Allies’ – that has become the talk of the town. Released in September 2021, the book “takes us on an unforgettable journey and reminds us that the maharajahs were serious political actors – essential to knowing modern India.”

In a recent conversation with TOI Books, Pillai discussed in detail ‘False Allies’, Raja Ravi Varma, Indian royalty during the British Raj, and more.

1. How would you describe the book ‘False Allies’ for someone who hasn’t read it?
‘False Allies’ is about India’s princely states and maharajahs, except that it rises beyond the lazy stereotype of palaces, jewels, and elephants. I approach them as political figures who, far from meekly submitting to the British Raj, often resisted colonialism, in inventive and interesting ways.

2. Right at the beginning of the book you have a quote wherein Indira Gandhi can be seen bashing the royals. Her dislike of the Indian royals (including Maharani Gayatri Devi) was very open. Why do you think that there was this hostility towards the royals in the years that followed independence?

I think Mrs. Gandhi, especially after her declared socialist turn, had ideological issues with the idea of royalty. But the more immediate reason behind her dislike was that many maharajahs, who had large privy purses from the government as per their treaties with the Indian Union, were funding opposition parties, which in turn were challenging the Congress’ dominance. Bashing the royals was step one in reneging on those treaty arrangements and cutting off the patronage the ex-royals extended to Mrs. Gandhi’s political opponents, such as the Swatantra Party. In that sense, it was about consolidating her power.

3. You choose a very interesting figure – Raja Ravi Varma – to uncover a true and more balanced picture of the princes. Why particularly him?
Ravi Varma was a princely “insider”, himself related to royalty, and who in his career traveled to and worked in multiple princely states. Given that there are hundreds of princely territories, I didn’t want to choose the states I would study. So instead, I use him as a connecting thread – the chapters in the book are all on states in which he worked as a society artist, and about rulers he painted. He becomes the medium through which we visit each principality and understand that world and its politics.

4. In the current scenario, where do you think the royal families stand? Do they have any relevance in the 21st century?
Legally, not much, but culturally yes. Ex-royals still control important cultural assets, art collections, buildings, and so on. Many of them also retain social and religious significance – the rights of the Travancore royals in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, for example, have been affirmed by the Supreme Court. Many have also converted the public esteem for their ancestors into electoral success in the present. Of course, we must also not forget that there are still legally recognized princes in India. While Mrs. Gandhi abolished privy purses, those ex-royals whose allowances and status derive from earlier agreements made by the British are still in receipt of those benefits. There is still, for example, a Prince of Arcot, and in Kerala, the Zamorin of Calicut still receives allowances as per an early nineteenth-century treaty with the British. So in 21st century India, we still do have a few recognized royals.

5. Why only India’s “Maharajahs” in the age of Ravi Varma? Didn’t the Maharanis have the same biased representation by the British, which led to their vilification as well?
The maharanis do appear in the book and I highlight how colonial prejudice often tried to reduce them to domestic figures, whereas the women themselves behaved as political actors. Many of them were not interested in character certificates from the British and their acolytes – they were more interested in power, in preserving their families’ standing, and in maintaining royal honor. But the bulk of the figures in the book are men, hence the maharajahs of the title. My first book, ‘The Ivory Throne’, however, is more woman-oriented.

6. Why do you think that it is important for you as a historian to counter the biased image of the Maharajahs presented to Indians? Why is it necessary at the time we are living in?
Because it helps us understand that history is complicated and not about simple binaries. The princely states and their political histories tell us a lot about colonialism, communalism, caste dynamics, state formation, and these are all part of that broad category called “Indian history”. Looking at less-studied aspects of history is a way of enriching our understanding of the past in general. And this past shaped our present, so naturally, we must treat it with seriousness.

7. A lighter question – Which royal figure do you find the most fascinating? And why?

Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda, who was one of the sharpest princely critics of the Raj, and who not only gave speeches the British saw as seditious, but also supported the Congress financially, had contacts with revolutionaries, and employed patently anti-Raj people in his government. For decades he got away with it and the British could do little. They eventually managed to corner him and threaten him with deposition, but it took thirty years – proof again that the maharajahs were not pushovers.

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sophie Kinsella

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