Manu Pillai's new book, False Allies, looks at India's Maharajas in the age of Ravi Varma

Manu S Pillai expresses his larger argument: that the princely states were not just about palaces and elephants, but were spaces whose political history and peoples’ experiences shaped the country

author_img Anila Kurien Published :  28th September 2021 11:53 AM   |   Published :   |  28th September 2021 11:53 AM
Book cover of False Allies

Book cover of False Allies

Way before he turned 30, Manu S Pillai had several accolades and achievements to his credit. Having risen to fame with The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, the young historian and writer is now creating a buzz with his latest release, False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma, which was recently launched in Bengaluru. 

Talking about the book, Pillai says, “Given that I have focused on five princely states on the basis of Ravi Varma’s travels and work in these states, his portraits of their rajahs and ranis were an important source. In official portraiture, for example, one can find all kinds of clues and signals as to how rulers wished to project themselves; their stance, clothes, the objects in the background, all hold meaning.” 

His research included the archival material, collected from places as diverse as the National Library of Scotland to India’s National Archives in Delhi and a royal tutor’s diary from 1920 that took him years to track. 

“I also make much use of old newspaper archives, because they hold such a wealth of first-hand information, as also British parliamentary reports, and so on,” he says, adding that the princely states were also sites of anti-colonial resistance in their own way, which is why the book is titled False Allies.
For over a decade now, Pillai has been researching Ravi Varma and parts of the Travancore chapters. The book, in fact, originally began through a grant from the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation and was meant to be an internal resource for the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation. But that idea changed owing to the book’s larger appeal. 

Giving us a sneak peek into his discoveries, Pillai shares something he found on Ravi Varma that none of the other biographers have found over the last century — Ravi Varma’s father-in-law was embroiled in a murder case. “Of course, this does not directly touch the artist himself; Ravi Varma had not yet married the man’s daughter at the time of the scandal. But even so, I was taken aback that there was so much material on it, especially in newspapers from Bombay to London, and yet it never appeared in narratives about the painter’s life,” Pillai says. 

So, what’s he like when he’s not writing? “Very private! It’s best if people know my books, rather than me. I am not all that interesting outside of that. Or at least not in any predictable ways,” he says with a laugh.

(False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma by Manu S Pillai, published by Juggernaut, is available on Amazon for Rs 711)

Having worked very closely with Shashi Tharoor as chief of staff in his Delhi office, Manu Pillai has picked up a few habits of his. He says, “Dr Tharoor works very, very hard, and that does not always come across because he wears it all very lightly. I have seen his study light on till 2 and 3 am, and when I was doing my first book, it motivated me to also focus and keep going. I have had the privilege of working with him and seeing how things are behind the scenes. It is not easy to write books, travel the world to speak at major conferences, win elections thrice in a row, and hold it all together— it can only be done through hard work,” Pillai says.