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Book review: False Allies by Manu S. Pillai

FALSE ALLIES India`s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma by Manu Pillai  (Juggernaut Books).

The book is something of an eye- opener for those whose opinion of Indian princes of the past  was less than favourable, who placed them all in one velvet-lined drawer of history, labelling them degenerates/despots/dissolute beings. So yes, some of the aforementioned labels did fit but Pillai also shows how some of the princes,  adroitly helped by their Dewans, did a good job of facing down their  British overlords.

And what of those who don’t really have any kind of opinion on Indian princes past and present? Well, this book offers  neat capsules  of information on the men and women who ruled many pockets of the country back in the day, did so astutely,  and had the spine to defy their colonial masters. Even if they did not win all of these confrontations, they still emerged as a remarkably politically savvy lot.

Tracing the career trajectory of the  the artist Ravi Varma who was related to the Travancore royals, Pillai shows how the rulers of the principalities where the artist lived and worked  at different periods of his life  functioned, even as the British grip on their territories and themselves was becoming inexorable.

There are entertaining passages showing how the British viewed the ranis and were deeply suspicious of their supposed harem politics; how the same colonial rulers expected the princes to look and dress in an exotic manner in order to `other` them; how deftly some of the royals played high politics; how a Baroda battalion was kitted out in Scottish uniform complete with kilts…and pink tights worn on the legs; the Mavelikara murder case where the weapon of choice was a jackfruit, and suchlike.

Using his characteristically chatty, descriptive style, Pillai paints a clear picture of a hitherto caricatured lot. So okay, some of the royals don`t emerge too far from their caricatures but some surprise us with their acuity.
For all the political machinations and palace intrigues, the focus never strays  too far from the one factor that binds them all in this book: Ravi Varma. What emerges is a portrait of a man of immense talent, a quick study, one who tried to stay on top of political intrigues and its inevitable fallouts, one who set up a commercial press to sell prints of his works but did not wish to be tainted by commerciality.
In my opinion, he comes across as the most interesting personality in the book.
And oh, the photographs that accompany the chapters are the kind that the reader will spend time poring over in total absorption.

 

Related Links:

Book review: The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin by Manu S Pillai

Book review: Rebel Sultans by Manu S Pillai

Book review: The Ivory Throne by Manu S Pillai

 

Barodabook reviewFalse AlliesIndia`s maharajahsJaipurJuggernaut BooksManu S PillaiMysoreRaja Ravi VarmaTravancore principlaitiesUdaipur

Sheila Kumar • October 27, 2021


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