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'False Allies' By Manu Pillai: A Review

False Allies : India’s Maharajas in the Age of Ravi Varma

Author : Manu S. Pillai

Rating : 4/5 stars


“To simply dismiss the princely states as unworthy of historical interrogation, then -as a world of dancing girls and empty-headed despots -blurs intelligent perception.” -Manu S. Pillai, False Allies

In school, while studying about emperors and empresses, I often thought about, What will I do with facts of which emperor/empresses fought battles with another maharaja or by learning dates of which Maharaja ruled when? For a 12-year-old, history-laden with facts did not seem appealing. But as I grew up, I realized that History is one of the most important subjects which can help one in understanding the deeper mystery of the future through the past. History is not just about facts, it's more about humans and their experiences. It took time to understand that an interesting way to engage with history could be by learning it and understanding it as the story of humans with all their eccentricities and complexities.

Manu S. Pillai, the best-selling author and historian, does the same, in his latest book " False Allies: India's Maharajas in the Age of Ravi Varma". He makes us understand finer nuances of the history of princely states in India through humans and their experiences.

Were princely states all about luxury, elephants, and jewels? Isn't the cliché of presenting the zenanas (women quarters) of princely states as full of jealous women without any part in politics, an unfair portrayal? Manu Pillai takes us to the journey of princely states in his hard-to-put-down book "False Allies" and compels us to reconsider the stereotypical image of Indian Maharajas and the Princely States during British India. He recognizes that , yes , there were elephants and jewels, but the story of princely states has more to it than just luxury.

False Allies takes us back to the world of Maharajas. Pillai by following the “professional peregrinations” of Ravi Varma draws the account of five princely states where Ravi Varma did Portraits. These states are- Travancore, Pudukkottai, Baroda, Mysore, and Udaipur. The book has been written in a captivating manner and is full of characters that will leave an imprint on the reader for a long time.

It also familiarizes us with the Dewans (Prime Ministers) of Maharajas. Dewan of Travancore, A. Seshiah Sastri for example was a highly respected man. He was held in high regard by the British as he turned from a loyal civil servant to Dewan of a native princely state.

Pillai also narrates the experiences of Madhava Rao, another minister appointed in the princely state of Baroda as the Prime Minister who supposedly wrote "first constitution drafted in modern India."

Manu Pillai also argues that Madhava Rao moved the Dewan's office outside the royal palace to mark out a division between court and government. The famed leader Dadabhai Naoroji also served as the Dewan of the princely state of Baroda for some time. In a way, Pillai shines a light on ministers of these princely states and makes the reader realize how little we know about the princely states and their nobles.

Authors like Ira Mukhoty, who has written the famous book "Daughters of the Sun: Empresses ,Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire " and Manu Pillai must be credited with bringing to light the role of strong, powerful women in the princely circles of medieval and modern India.

After reading False Allies, the reader can believe more strongly that women in the women quarters of various princely states were not only political creatures but also had an active role in the functioning of some of the princely states of India.

Pillai shines a light on the strong character of Rani Janaki Subamma of Pudukkottai, who became a strong rival of Dewan Seshiah Sastri after her husband's death when Sastri became Dewan - Regent, till minor heir came of age. Rani Jamnabai of Baroda was also a lady who was not afraid to voice her opinion. As Manu Pillai observes, she had a role to play in the selection of Sayaji Rao as the Maharaja of Baroda and also attempted to control the ruler's autonomy and demanded the right to advise the ruler and so on by petitioning the British government.

Manu Pillai also takes us to the journey of Matrilineal Travancore where "descent in the female line from a common ancestor was the dynasty's organizing principle ." Since Travancore was matrilineal, Rani's husbands were not their equals as Mr. Pillai observes. The husbands of Ranis were not permitted to sit in Rani's presence in the public and usually were not allowed to travel in the same carriage as their wives, as Manu Pillai narrates to his readers. He also points to the fact that since zenanas or the female quarters were "shut to British influence" they were powerful sites where active politics took place and shape.

Since the book is titled "False Allies: India's Maharajas in the Age of Ravi Varma" Manu Pillai also shines light on the "Maharajas ". For me, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda stands out. He was a hands-on Maharaja. Manu Pillai argues that he pushed for the enlargement of roads and also took the task of modernizing the state actively upon himself. Manu Pillai observes that Maharaja Sayaji Rao declared that schools must be opened in all villages where even sixteen children were willing to attend.

Pillai further tells us that Britishers were not quite very happy with this Baroda Maharaja as he challenged the British stereotype that questioned the native's ability to progress. In a 1908, conversation about which Mr. Pillai elaborates in the book , between Aga Khan and Maharaja Sayaji Rao is very interesting as here the Maharaja himself remarks " The first thing to do when the English are gone, is to get rid of all these rubbishy states. '' Manu Pillai in the book also elaborates on Sayaji Rao's meetings with the revolutionaries abroad. Rana Fateh Singh of Mewar is another interesting Maharana in the book.

Maharana Fateh Singh

Manu Pillai also gives a glimpse of Royal Mysore and its Maharajas . Mysore had a physics loving Maharaja named Chamarajendra Wadiyar who adhered to a strong work ethic. Pillai argues that industrialization brought praise for the Mysore state and even "nationalists celebrated the state as an exemplar of good governance and discouraged anti-royal agitation."

The book also familiarizes its readers with Ravi Varma, one of the most important painters of modern times; his biographical snippets weaved beautifully in the story of princely states make the book more engrossing . Manu Pillai's astonishing work on Indian Maharajas opens a door of infinite possibilities of discovering the history of each of these very political princely states. In my personal opinion, the book can have a sequel , taking us to a journey of other important princely states of that time and probably introduce us to some more interesting Maharajas, Maharanis, and Dewans and about the power politics that took place in princely India and the British provinces. False Allies is a must read for anyone who is interested in understanding the times and lives of Indian Maharajas and their impact in shaping history.


By Preet Sharma

Preet Sharma is a graduate of Political Science Hons from Hindu College, University of Delhi.