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What modern India owes its maharajahs

Manu S. Pillai speaks about the making of his new book on the legacy of India’s princely states and their rulers, who were far from meek and subservient to the British Raj

Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar (Udaipur) (1849–1930) was one of the grandest, most old-world figures Ravi Varma painted.
Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar (Udaipur) (1849–1930) was one of the grandest, most old-world figures Ravi Varma painted. (Courtesy Maharana Fateh Singh (r. 1884–1930 ce). Media Office, The City Palace, Udaipur © Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation)

The epigraph to Manu S. Pillai’s new book, False Allies: India’s Maharajahs In The Age Of Ravi Varma, is 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.”

The former prime minister’s distaste for royalty is well-known. Her support for the abolition of the privy purses in the 1970s was vociferous, and for good reasons too. Post-colonial India hasn’t been kind to the legacy of the maharajahs either, though some of them still enjoy grass-roots level fealty, even if it’s token symbolism. 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.

In this edited excerpt from an email interview, Pillai speaks about the central thesis of his book, challenging the established narrative, and his abiding fascination with Raja Ravi Varma.

In the popular discourse, the perception of India’s ex-royal families as venal and self-serving has become entrenched partly, as you point out, due to political reasons. How has historical scholarship grappled with the complex layers in this flattened version?

This, in fact, is the remarkable thing. 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.

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Not enough scholars have worked on the states, unfortunately, though in the last few decades excellent studies have emerged. The cliché of a princely state usually presents a durbar, some kind of “feudal” ruler, arbitrary government, etc. But a serious study like Robin Jeffrey’s Decline Of Nayar Dominance (1976) shows just how complicated a state’s internal system could be. 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.

Tarabai, Sayaji Rao's sister, painted by Ravi Varma.
Tarabai, Sayaji Rao's sister, painted by Ravi Varma. (Courtesy The Royal Gaekwad Collection, on display at Maharaja Fatesingh Museum, Vadodara)

The age of Ravi Varma, as you argue, is a potent period to understand the changing dynamics of the relationship between the Raj and the princely states. To what extent did the aesthetics of Ravi Varma’s portraiture deepen your understanding of the characters you were writing about?

I chose Ravi Varma as a running thread through the book for several reasons. For one, he belonged to a generation when national elites and the princes were on the same page. He printed lithographs of Bal Gangadhar Tilak as well as of the Mysore maharajahs. He knew G.K. Gokhale, as also leading zamindars. Besides, his sisters-in-law and granddaughters were themselves royal.

Varma’s portrait enterprise, which took him to several states, also enabled me to shortlist five out of the 100 main options—I didn’t want to write too generic a book, instead preferring to focus on some in detail. And yes, the manner in which a ruler might pose for the artist, the objects he was surrounded with in the canvas: All of these were meant to present a carefully constructed image. Even a weak ruler like Ramachandra Tondaiman of Pudukkottai could look “in control” in a Varma portrait. I also found the books often featured in the background revealing, because their titles tell us a good deal about what the artist and his patron wished to communicate about themselves as modern men.

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From the very first pages of the book, the tension between Eastern and Western values, the monarch as a divinely ordained figure versus an authority created by British bureaucracy, is palpable. Where did these conflicts leave the notion of colonial modernity, both in theory and practice?

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.

In 1881, Ravi Varma travelled to Baroda to paint its Maratha maharajah, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad (1863–1939).
In 1881, Ravi Varma travelled to Baroda to paint its Maratha maharajah, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad (1863–1939). (Courtesy The Royal Gaekwad Collection, on display at Maharaja Fatesingh Museum, Vadodara)

Would you say the southern states, with the exception of Pudukkottai, were more inclined to toe the line of British modernity than, say, Udaipur, the only northern state you write about? How do the temperaments of the rulers in the north and south compare during the years you focus on?

I think much depended on each state’s history. Travancore and Mysore, for example, had begun a process of bureaucratisation and centralisation before subordination by the British. This allowed the Raj to watch their rulers closely because the infrastructure allowed access to information and, thus, control. Rajput states, on the other hand, were decentralised, with many internal chiefdoms even in the 20th century—just as the British tried to control the rajahs, the rajahs had testy dealings with their own vassals. It was less easy to “streamline” such states because of the numerous stakeholders involved. The British, therefore, were more cautious in Rajputana than the south. History, geopolitical location and the exact circumstances in which the colonial power formed its association with the states all mattered. In some places, there were treaties; in others, no treaties at all, not even tribute. Much of the relationship developed ad hoc.

It’s fascinating how the attitude of the nationalists, especially the Congress, towards the princely states shifted through the decades. While men like Dadabhai Naoroji invested hope of India’s self-governance on the success of the princely states, others were of a different opinion. How do you explain the divergences of these views?

This is quite telling. In the early phase of India’s national awakening, the maharajahs were not seen as problematic. On the contrary, many were portrayed as icons for Indians as a whole, and they in turn supported political groups in British India—why, Naoroji’s election to the House of Commons was funded in good measure by Indian royals. After all, the maharajahs had a strategic interest in undermining the Raj. Nationalists, in turn, saw it as part of their goal to preserve the autonomy of the princely states, which had been spared the worst of direct colonial rule. The states were, besides, planks where educated Indians could find jobs befitting their talents, without hitting a racial glass ceiling. M.G. Ranade, Gokhale, down to K.M. Panikkar, all saw the maharajahs as countering the claim that “natives” could not govern themselves, by allowing talented brown men positions of prominence.

In fact, as late as 1929, Sardar Patel, who later would merge the states with the Indian Union, was respectful of the princes, while (M.K.) Gandhi took even longer to change his tone of regard. Opposition built up chiefly in the 1930s when the future of India was being debated.

Prior to World War II, the maharajahs had a place at the table, but they squandered the opportunity. In many states, partly due to their own success in widening access to education, clamours arose for democratic representation. Local politicians began to work with Congress, and slowly the maharajahs began to see Congressmen as a nuisance. Royal governments also became more repressive in response, which cost them sympathy. But as I show in the book, this took a while: For much of the freedom struggle, the nationalists and the princes were friends.

Maharajah Visakham Tirunal of Travancore (1837–85), seen here receiving a British governor of Madras in 1880, was an amateur botanist, industrialist and writer.
Maharajah Visakham Tirunal of Travancore (1837–85), seen here receiving a British governor of Madras in 1880, was an amateur botanist, industrialist and writer. (Wikimedia Commons)

I was intrigued by the seesaw of power among the regent, East India Company, rulers and ‘dewans’. Was this volatility a result of personality politics or nebulous legal ambits that were set to prevent one entity from stepping on another’s toes?

Personalities mattered in systems where so much depended on the ruler but it was also about balancing various interests. Within the East India Company, for example, there were different elements advocating different approaches: This was also why rulers could send lobbyists to London if the local administration did not treat them well. On the princely side, a maharajah like Mysore’s Krishnaraja III had all at once to uphold his idea of kingship, try to cut down an overpowerful Brahmin bureaucracy, deal with the rebellious tendencies of segments of his subjects, like the Lingayats, and so on. At any time, the British might exploit these internal factions for their gain, or these segments might woo the British to check the maharajah. It was plain politics: what one finds on the surface is not necessarily what drove things.

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To what extent does India’s constitutional, democratic and federal character owe a debt to the colonial period, especially to the systems that sought to preserve harmony between the British and the princely states?

A lot of the “native statesmen” in the states, ranging from Dinkar Rao and Madhava Rao to Naoroji and Seshiah Sastri, thought deeply about India’s political future. These men also recognised challenges—the sheer diversity of the land, the difficulty in rousing a sentiment of nationalism among its multitudes—and tried to answer them in different ways. To this day, electoral politics in many places follows patterns that can be traced to this period. Travancore, for instance, was divided by political rivalries between the landed Nairs, a Tamil/Maratha Brahmin service elite, the ascendant Ezhavas, and Christians: With the exception of the Brahmins, even now politics in south Kerala revolves around these groupings, which took form in the time of the maharajahs.

How would you compare the way the idea of India as a nation evolved through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries?

In the 19th century, nationalism was not a given. Some elite, English-speaking Indians had to actively construct an intellectual argument for nationalism, especially given that the British (and even other Indians) denied the proposition. While ultimately it was Gandhi who transformed elite preoccupations with nationalism into a mass movement, that first generation prepared the ground through newspaper articles, books, lectures and debates. And they were convinced it would bear fruit.

As one of the Travancore maharajahs wrote in the 1880s, the Raj could either stand in the way or it could welcome this, making over the empire to Indians when the time came. That way, the British could conclude their imperial adventure with dignity. But yes, then as today, there were conflicting ideas of India, and if one set of values articulated by one set of people dominated during a phase, rival beliefs always lay in wait.

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