‘The British had a political and imperial incentive in casting the maharajahs as fools’: Manu S Pillai

(Interview with Adrija Rowchowdhury in The Indian Express, October 24 2021)

Why did you choose to write about the princely states in connection with Raja Ravi Varma? 

Ravi Varma was the perfect insider and link between multiple states. His sisters-in-law and granddaughters were royal, while his portrait enterprise took him to several states for work. Tracking his peregrinations was a method by which I was able to select five out of 100 major states, and study them and their rulers in detail. Otherwise the book would have become too generic.

As you mention in the book, bestowing titles on the princes and insisting on public fealty was necessary for the British to acquire legitimacy. But how were the princes expecting to gain by getting into treaties with the British?

Each state had different incentives. Travancore went in relatively early, to secure itself from Mysore’s aggressions under Tipu Sultan. Pudukkottai’s rulers were transitioning from chieftains to kings, and allying themselves to a superior force was a method to gain recognition. In Rajputana, many rulers under Maratha dominance had become weak, and their own vassals encroached on their power; British support helped them restore the vitality of their thrones, and push vassals back into obedience—that is, by accepting British suzerainty, the rajahs regained their own authority over subordinate chieftains. They gave up power in one sense in order to win some in another. Recently the scholar Priya Atwal has showed how several Punjab states too, faced with confirmed extinction at the hands of Ranjit Singh’s empire or survival in a truncated form with the British, chose the latter. It is all fascinatingly complex.

Were the princes aware of the caricatures they were being turned into by the British? If so, were there attempts on their part to alter that image? 

Yes. Many maharajahs took to wearing simpler clothes, to fight the stereotype of royal excess, where ‘native chiefs’ were depicted as draped in silks and decked with jewels. One of the charges against Sayajirao III of Baroda was that he presented himself  to the British king in simple dress—he was expected to show up wearing colourful robes and diamonds. But he was allergic to being viewed as exotica. In Mysore, it was with pride that a publication announced that the ruler handled 900 files in his first year, disproving the idea that all princes did was sit idly on thrones. Even in the ways in which princes were depicted in art one sees this: Ravi Varma’s portrait of the Pudukkottai rajah has him rest a hand on Homer’s Iliad, as if signalling ease with Western culture, while also in the distance showing the gopuram of his temple, hinting at a rootedness in tradition. The British had a political and imperial incentive in casting the maharajahs as fools—historians must be apprehensive about such claims, especially when so much evidence exists of a princely pushback, subtle as well as obvious.

You mention that in states like Baroda and Travancore, the local people were happy with their rulers. How did the people of these states react to the news of their states acceding to the Indian union and were there attempts made by the Indian government or the ruling princes to pacify them? 

There was, of course political agitation in these states as well, but standards of living were high—there was a sophisticated government infrastructure, investments in health and education that surpassed British-Indian standards, and even ambitious industrial projects. Politics did not revolve around nationalism but around local issues, and often, around caste and communalism. Various balances of power had to be managed within, but even so the very fact that the independent Indian government promised to preserve princely dignity through privy purses and privileges is important—it was not done to merely ‘purchase’ accession; it was also a signal to the people that the rajahs would not be disrespected. This is not to say there were no bad eggs among the princes: only that many commanded genuine loyalty.

How did the Congress party perceive the princes? Did they see them as sophisticated political players or did they agree with the image of the princes as drawn out by the British? 

The Congress by the second half of the 1930s was hostile to the princes, but for a long stretch before that, there was regard. Various rulers not only made it donations, but also spoke from the party’s platforms. GK Gokhale, MG Ranade, Dadabhai Naoroji and their generation saw the preservation of princely autonomy vis-à-vis the Raj as an important national issue. Nationalist newspapers often celebrated maharajahs and their Dewans (ministers) who, through good governance, disproved the trope that ‘natives’ could not rule. Even Gandhi was respectful of the princes well into the 1930s, and hesitant for the Congress to meddle in states’ politics. But into that decade, things changed. After that, several stereotypes peddled by the Raj were embraced by Congress as well.

We know that royal families in some parts of the modern world have retained relevance till date, the best example being the British royal family. Would you say that the erstwhile princely states of India have the same kind of relevance today?

There is, depending on where you look, often a religious and social relevance to the ex-royal families, and this appeal is also why so many princely descendants are politicians today. Some have used the cultural resources they possess—art, buildings, antiques—to reinvent themselves, but many have sunk into oblivion. That the age of the princes is over is not in doubt. What matters is to study their history and their states’ histories, because they too are part of India’s story and contributed to shaping our modernity. Mysore’s determined industrialisation was a legitimate form of fighting colonialism even if its ruler did not lead street agitation; Baroda’s support to anti-British elements was not an accident. Even if to understand how Indian nationalism itself evolved, we would benefit by studying the princes. There was more to them than caricature.