Manu Pillai’s latest book, False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma, counters the popular notion that the princely states were stooges of the British Raj. Pillai spoke about the book and the place of the rajahs and ranis in the political history of modern India to Excerpts from the interview:

It is 50 years since Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purse, ceasing all governmental grants to the royals of erstwhile princely states in India. Why is this present time an important juncture to revisit the Maharajahs?
I don’t think it is about royalty as much as about the states over which they governed, and, thus, about seeing them as heads of those states. Behind the colourful stories about rajahs and ranis, and of their quirks and peculiarities, we often forget that the places they ruled – spread over forty percent of subcontinental territory – have serious histories. And these, lying outside British-ruled India, are fascinating political spaces, that can tell us about everything from tribal unrest to court culture and ideas of kingship.

The emphasis, however, for too long has been on British-ruled India alone, and if we are to form a fuller understanding of modern India, I believe it is important to also investigate the princely states, their negotiation of modernity and colonialism, and the stories of their people, political institutions, and rulers. Seventy years after Independence, we can, I think, look beyond “nationalist history” alone, and beyond what was happening in areas the British directly controlled.

The image of Indian kings during the Raj still suffers heavily from a colonial hangover: the stereotype of an average Maharajah possessing 11 titles, three uniforms, 5.8 wives, 12.6 children, five palaces, 9.2 elephants, and no less than 3.4 Rolls Royce cars. What does your research reveal about the true personalities, predilections and lifestyles of the Maharajahs?
Much of this is exaggerated. Yes, there were rulers with a taste for luxury and with titillating sex-lives, but this is hardly unique to Indian royalty – one need only look at Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, or even someone as stiff as Lord Curzon, who had it in him to tumble about with married women and play tennis stark naked. In India, playing up princely excess, then, was a part of the colonial narrative which argued that “natives” were incapable of government, and those who did have power, were wine-guzzling idiots.

This was why a number of princes actively fought these stereotypes – they dressed simply (much to the umbrage of the Raj, which expected them to look exotic with diamonds and silks), advertised how many files they handled routinely or how many hours they worked, wrote essays and gave speeches on subjects as diverse as Sanskrit literature and nationalism, and tried to beat the British at what we call “good governance”.

This is not to say they were not autocrats: they were. But to reduce them to caricature and stereotype is to neglect a fascinating chapter of history and remarkable political figures. I do not argue that they were wonderful, amazing people; however, I do argue that they were more than just about riding elephants and lying about on silk cushions.

Popular perception also has it that the Maharajahs remained stooges of the British steadfastly during their entire rule, including the 1857 rebellion or the freedom struggle, up to Independence. To what extent does this narrative hold for the states and princes you’ve studied?
In 1857 India was not yet a nation. And the rulers looked at the event through the prism of self-interest. For instance, Rajput princes had suffered a great deal under the Marathas – naturally many of them felt ambivalent about joining a movement in which the Peshwa’s heir was a principal leader. In Travancore, the rajah faced threats of annexation; by loudly proclaiming loyalty, he put the British in a position of having to reciprocate and leave him alone, as indeed they did.

All the same, some princes did find ways to support the rebellion – Tukoji Rao Holkar II of Indore officially stood with the British, but conveniently “lost control” of his troops, who sided with the rebels. He played a double game, evidently, and many in the British establishment distrusted him for the next 20 years. He wrote oily letters, but they saw through it – which is also to say that with the princes, what appears on the surface may not always be what actually happened.

What many also seem to have been forgotten is that as nationalism emerged, many princes saw advantage in supporting it. Congress for decades received funding from the princes (though when the two fell out by the 1930s, several rulers transferred their affections to the Hindu Mahasabha); maharajahs donated to nationalist organisations as diverse as the East India Association in London to the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha in Maharashtra; often they looked the other way as newspapers in their states criticised the Raj, while some coolly allowed banned, revolutionary propaganda to be printed in their jurisdictions; and, in other such ways, they needled the Raj.

On the face of it they were allies of the British, but in practice they constantly resisted colonial power even if only to preserve their own interests – this is why my book is called False Allies. The maharajahs were neither quietly submissive nor meek, sometimes fighting long battles even on questions of ritual, protocol, and vocabulary. It that may look silly to us but it mattered in a world where symbols held deep political meanings. If they could not fight the Raj using hard power, they fought them in other creative ways.

The British Raj’s approach of clubbing 100-odd bona fide princes in India into a seemingly monolithic honorific in fact belied their great differences in virtually evert aspect of contemporary life: from caste, community and stature to attire and cuisine. Do any common patterns of outlook, policy and administration emerge amidst all this diversity?
Yes, there was tremendous internal diversity in how the states were structured and sized, how politics operated within and who the big players were in terms of the histories and caste backgrounds of the rulers, and even in terms of political prestige – this last point is one reason why the princes failed to unite and lobby together in a sustained fashion, for their own survival, even when as late as the 1930s, they had the power to pull it off.

But they did have some common features: the existence of a single overlord meant their grievances often mirrored one another’s, as did their strategic sympathy for the nationalist cause. Many of them also imported “native statesmen”, ie, talented administrators from one another’s services.

Sir T Madhava Rao, thus, was Dewan of Travancore, where he was a massive success; he then went to help Indore modernise, and finally played a huge role in setting up new institutions and administrative frameworks in Baroda. His friend Seshiah Sastri similarly worked in two states, while another friend became Dewan of Mysore, as did Rao’s son.

The maharajahs needed men of talent, while men of talent – who hit racial glass ceilings in British India – needed the maharajahs and their states in order to wield real power and shine. Together they could demonstrate that “natives” could rule, and the brown man did not require white guidance.

How did rulers of princely states address the shifting dynamics of the subject’s fealty to themselves, their own allegiance to the British, and a growing appetite for nationalist politics?
Many of them failed. In most princely states, the ruler held a balance of power between different factions, peasant groups, bureaucratic elements, and other interests. Like our politicians today, and the British of course, they were also capable of playing that old game of divide and rule. Nationalism was attractive to the maharajahs when it was an elite affair; when it moved to mass politics and the mobilisation of large groups, royalty felt threatened.

Politicians in the states, who hitherto worked on local issues and through prisms of caste and religion often, now saw an interest in tying up with the Congress, while Congress needed allies in the princely states to augment its own reach. Many rulers, therefore, in the 1930s, became repressive, which drained them of sympathy and in nationalist circles, of legitimacy as well.

But of course, the fact that so many royal descendants in twenty-first-century India still command respect and win elections suggests that their former subjects still continue to respect them or see in them something appealing. But more interestingly for me, it is that little-talked about historical phase when the Congress and the rajahs were friends, and royal legitimacy was not generally challenged even by nationalists, let alone their subjects.

Ravi Varma and his work run as a common thread across the book. What does the painter’s use of motifs, expressions and gestures, eg, the Royal Salvo tricycle of Prince Asvathi Tirunal of Travancore or the wooden unease of an obscure Kathiawar princess married to Krishnaraja IV, tell us about the subtle interplay of the hopes, ambitions and emotions of the sitters?
Princely portraits were never about merely capturing likenesses. They were about projecting idealised images of the sitter. The kind of books, furniture, and other props in the frame; the elements in the background; the clothes; the pose: all of these held meanings.

The wedding portrait of Krishnaraja IV of Mysore, which you refer to, is fascinating because of the layers it contains. On the face of it, we see just another royal couple. But the man in the picture was a major south Indian prince, among India’s top five, and among its richest; the lady, however, was a political nonentity. And yet she had value, because Krishnaraja’s family were keen to form alliances with Rajputs, and to be recognised as Rajputs. So even if the bride came from an obscure lineage, she had blood her south Indian husband coveted.

The painting also tells you about the Wadiyar’s dynasty’s own identity – real or imagined – at a time when they were also turning industrialisation into a state cult. That is, on the one hand they wished to be at the head of “progress” in India – building factories, dams, iron and steel works, and more – while also, in a “traditional” sense, laying claim to what they saw as pristine blue blood. The prince in the painting is a very modern figure in terms of how he behaves as a ruler, while all at once seeking a new kind of tradition in his personal, dynastic and conjugal choices.

This book is as much a revisitation of the Maharajahs of princely states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as of the person through whose eyes their portraits are seen: the iconic Raja Ravi Varma. How should present-day India view this once-revered and subsequently derided artist?
He was a most interesting man: a painter of talent, but who also benefited from his aristocratic roots and the doors these opened. He at once painted maharajahs as he did nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and British grandees. He attended Congress sessions while one of his granddaughters would, with her son, try and crush a local Congress style movement in Travancore decades later.

In his life and career Ravi Varma encapsulates the very many contradictory trends of that time, and in his art he created a visual archive of some of the leading political figures of the day: some of them nationalists but many of them also princes, capable of calling a spade a spade, and of earning the respect of their people and countrymen. Because he was an insider but also a maverick, and because he worked in several important princely states, I was able to use Ravi Varma as a running thread through the book, while revisiting the histories of the rajahs he painted and of their principalities.