‘It served the British to paint Indian rajahs as clueless, despotic idiots.’

(Published in The Times of India, October 17 2021)

Where did our perception of maharajahs as passive, wine-guzzling despots who didn’t do much come from?

A good deal of it was part of the colonial narrative. British rule justified itself on the count that ‘natives’ could not govern themselves. So what about the 40 percent of the country that did have Indian princes in power? Here the claim was that they were no good, and that the Raj had to ‘guide’ them. In other words, casting maharajahs as ‘effeminate’, greedy, wine-guzzling idiots served the imperial narrative and its need to legitimise British rule in India. Of course, there were foolish rajahs, just as there were hopeless British figures—but picking and projecting the worst specimens from a group is propaganda, not reality. What is more, many rajahs pushed back, becoming heroes to nationalists. This was a big fear for the Raj: that princely prestige and wealth might unite with Indian nationalism. And despite reprimands, multiple maharajahs continued to fund Congress and other organisations.

What made you pick Ravi Varma’s perspective for this relook at the rulers of princely states?

Ravi Varma was an insider, related to royalty, and is a running thread in the book. Besides, there were 100 major states, and I didn’t want to write a general textbook covering all. By picking five—where Ravi Varma worked—I narrowed things down, studying each in detail. One sees, thus, the diversity of their internal structures, and the balances of power maharajahs had to manage, not only with the British but also within. I also use Ravi Varma’s own royal relatives to talk of gender issues; using Baroda I highlight how individual rulers resisted the Raj; Udaipur is about the tussle between a complex Rajput order and the British; Mysore is about industrialisation as a means to counter imperial stereotypes. Other small details also loop Ravi Varma in: he painted for the Mysore maharajahs, and his own great-grandson came to Mysore for training as a prince. The same great-grandson was considered as a potential husband for a granddaughter of the Baroda maharajah, whom Ravi Varma painted decades before.

In what ways, overt and covert, did these royals subvert the British?

The princes were not supposed to have contacts with one another without British permission—a rule coolly flouted. In the 1880s when the freshly installed ruler of Baroda started to assume a defiant posture, the British found out that he was in touch with the Indore maharajah. This latter figure was notorious for disloyalty: during 1857 it was suspected that he colluded with the rebels; he lobbied in London, over the head of the British-Indian bureaucracy, to help save states such as of Dhar and Mysore; he donated to Dadabhai Naoroji’s East Indian Association, which spoke for Indians right under the queen’s nose, and lauded their ‘patriotic’ activities. Of course, he also wrote oily letters to the viceroy, but it was quite clear what the maharajah really thought.

How did the ranis in the princely states react to the Raj and to Victorian morality? 

These women were by no stretch passive. British suspicion of the ‘harem’ came precisely from how ranis could fight from the shadows and thwart colonial designs. Often the Raj would take on itself the education of minor princes to ‘save’ them from the ‘illicit’ influence of their mothers and wives; royal women, on the other hand, saw the British as trying to deracinate their men, and retaliated. The harem was no domestic space: it had a political role, and several female figures became powers behind the throne. At times they might work with the British to achieve common ends, while at other times doing the opposite. Like political alliances to this day, these things constantly shifted. Victorian ideas of women being good wives and mothers did place pressure, but a number of courtly women did as they pleased. When it came to politics, many were willing to choose power over the white man’s character certificates.

To what extent did the maharajahs manipulate or curate their portraiture? Did you come across any selfies? 

I did come across some naughty pictures of a rajah, not just sedate self-portraits, haha. But yes, portraiture served clear goals. How a ruler dressed, the furniture and objects he kept with him: these were loaded with meaning. In Travancore there is a painting of two boy-princes. The cliché was that Indian royalty was insular and clueless about the modern world. And yet in this picture, one boy holds a book about America, while the other points out the United States on a globe. The artist and princes are both making a statement. Similarly, photographs of Ram Singh of Jaipur show him in various traditional avatars, but also seated at a desk, with glasses on. In a sense the maharajah was signalling that he was many things at once: a pious Hindu as well as a Western-style intellectual who read English books.

Some kings consciously wore dull clothes, right? Did any of them make it to the cover of your book? 

No, alas. The cover is an early twentieth century picture showing the most senior Indian princes together. It was made for a Western audience so the rulers are shown with diamonds and pearls. But with multiple princes we find a distaste about this: the British expected Indian royalty to deck up, so many countered by doing the opposite—wearing simple clothes that lent a business-like air, not one of ‘Asiatic’ excess. In fact, not dressing up often upset the Raj and led to angry correspondence. So essentially, you have white men ordering brown princes to look exotic; and then the images are circulated to reduce the same men to unevolved despots, ill-fitted for the modern world. The princes resented this.

Any lessons in governance that modern politicians can learn from the princes?  

I would say that it is we who need to look at the princes as politicians, and not as rajahs in the colourful sense. Like politicians today, they had self-interest and ambitions, but also visions for their states and, occasionally, for India itself. Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda spoke of how the princely states would have to go if we were to become a nation; the Bikaner maharajah talked of cooperating with democratic forces in British India; a ruler of Travancore wrote of how the British must hand over power into brown hands. These were men who cared for power—but they also applied their minds.

Can looking past the elephants, eccentricities and other colonial tropes reshape global understanding of not only India’s pre-Independence history but also its modern nationalism? 

Yes. Nationalism as it formed in British India is a major part, but not the only part of the story: politics in the princely states often revolved around caste, communalism, sectarian groupings, and much else. These factors are still visible in Indian politics, and studying princely enclaves may shed light on the hows and whys of the issue.