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.