Report on False Allies by Manu S Pillai

Indu Kulkarni


A fascinating journey into the pre-independence period of India with Manu Pillai, the young
genius historian and Anindya Mukerjee a passionate lover of history to track his path. The
Book Club’s 99th episode was magical indeed as Anindya took pains to illustrate with maps,
slides and pictures the extent of the British sway over India. The pink areas on the map were
the princely states of Jammu and Kashmir, Mewar, Rajasthan, Mysore and Travancore
which were considered as False Allies.

The title of the book False Allies argues that the worldview and the one favoured by the
British was that these princely states were mere centres of pomp, opulence, with harems
and hunting expeditions and no real identity. Manu explodes this stereotypical world view
that all Maharajas were only caricatures of self-indulgence and pleasure. In truth the work
of Raja Ravi Varma, the great artist of the time in Travancore travelled across these five
states and the amazing analysis of the work done by these kingdoms is discussed. The book
spans the period from the 1860s to the 1900s.

Fateh Singh of Mewar appealed to his people that if the Tsars of Russia could be overthrown
why not the British. People power became important and his cry was that the 200 million of
our country cannot continue in this long sleep. Lord Curzon, the controversial governor was
given a rousing farewell in 1905 with the wish that “May India never see the like of you
again”. The spirit of nationalism was strong and gaining strength all over. Ravi Varma and
others warned that we must not hold out supporting hands to the British Parliament, like an
infant crying for a toy but recognize the bitter truth of our own bondage. Ravi Varma’s
insightful views of the progress made in these princely states is striking. In Baroda, Sayyaji
Rao set up village councils, Academy of Art, College of Science, Kalavant Karkhana in 1881
and so on. His second wife, Madam Chimnabai was the first Indian president of the AIWC (
not mentioned by Manu Pillai). The state abolished child marriage and ran many schools for
the people. Such prophetic visionaries these kings were and Ravi Varma pays glorious
tribute to the way they encouraged industrialization.

The Wodeyars of Mysore were illustrious in preserving the culture and traditions by opening
the University of Mysore. The glory of the state was to have a wise king to look after his
people and not let them suffer. Ravi Varma in his iconic portraits captured the shades of
life.. He also painted Puranic figures of the Gods and Goddesses. The images then taken
were later put onto match boxes! Manu Pillai through the keen perception of Raja Ravi
Varma has given us a brilliant sweep of the princely states. Lots of keen questions followed
the talk and Anindya was patient and eager to dispel doubts.

Nityaasha Foundation