History as battlefield: Understanding the complicated legacy of Tipu Sultan

Over 90 works of art unlocking the complicated legacy of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of Mysore, come under one roof for art lovers

History as battlefield: Understanding the complicated legacy of Tipu Sultan
The exhibition’s curator, Giles Tillotson, is not that subtle in saying what he thinks about the paintings on the sultan by English artists.

In March this year, two important events related to Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of Mysore with a manicured moustache who matched up to the might of the British empire for nearly four decades, happened in a throwback to the lore and slur that marked the peak of his colourful life. The first was an auction in London of a painting on the defeat of the East India Company by Tipu and his father Haider Ali in the 1780 Second Anglo-Mysore war for a whopping Rs 6 crore. The second, closer home in Bengaluru, was a proposal by a review committee of the Karnataka state government to tone down exaggerated content on Tipu in school textbooks.

The two episodes revealed how Britain, whose erstwhile commanders once vilified Tipu as a savage and ruthless tyrant, had changed its spots while his native country was doing a rethinking on his towering status. In the backdrop of the curious reversal of his historical standing in India and its former coloniser, a new major art exhibition in Delhi that began earlier this week aims to offer a helping hand to understand the complicated legacy of Tipu, famously called the Tiger of Mysore. Tipu Sultan: Image & Distance, the show by Indian art company DAG mounted at its gallery in The Claridges hotel, assembles 92 works of art comprising paintings and prints, nearly all of them acquired from private collections and specialised dealers in London and New York over the last seven years.

Like the swaying of Tipu’s history and contemporariness between India and Britain, the exhibition, which will be open to the public for two months, too, is a reversal in terms of acquisition of works of art relating to India’s history. The show focuses on the works by artists in England at the end of 18th century and beginning of 19th century portraying the Mysore sultan as a villain, all of them now under Indian ownership in contrast to the flight of historical artworks from the country before. “We are beginning to take a larger interest in historical material no matter what it is,” says Ashish Anand, DAG’s MD and CEO. “We are showing a fresh perspective of how the British looked at Tipu Sultan more than two centuries ago,” he adds. “We are not making a statement, we are simply showing the works.”

The exhibition’s curator, Giles Tillotson, is not that subtle in saying what he thinks about the paintings on the sultan by English artists. “Tipu Sultan was an extremely competent ruler. They (the British colonisers) had to turn him into a villain and they did it,” he explains about the works on the Anglo-Mysore wars and the eventual storming of Tipu’s capital Seringapatam (now Srirangapatna) and his eventual death in 1799. The highlight of the exhibition is English painter Henry Singleton’s The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun (1802) which shows a falling Tipu without his turban as three British officers pounce on him. “All of this is entirely imaginary: no one on the British side saw the moment when Tipu fell in battle, and his body was only discovered after its conclusion. He was more likely killed by a distant shot than in a close encounter,” writes Tillotson in a book on the exhibition released on the opening day on July 25. “Singleton shows us not how Tipu fell but how a British audience would like him to have done.”

Other works by such painters as Robert Ker Porter, David Wilkie and Thomas Stothard heighten the effect of East India Company generals’ imagined bravery and precision planning in warfare that led to the fall of Seringapatam. Porter’s 120-foot-long painting, The Storming of Seringapatam, bears the inscription, To The Honourable the Court of Directors of the East India Company. Described as the “most ambitious painting of the siege”, it was painted in six weeks and exhibited at the Lyceum Theatre in London from April 1800 for nearly a year. The visitors were charged an admission fee of one shilling. General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of the Sultaun Tippoo Sahib, an 1843 painting by Scottish artist Wilkie, was a work commissioned by General Baird’s widow who thought her husband, the architect of the storming of Seringapatam, hadn’t got the due credit. Incidentally, the first major art exhibition on Tipu Sultan was held in Scotland in 1999.

Born in 1750 as the long-desired son of Sultan Haider Ali and wife Fakhrunisa, Tipu was named after Sufi saint Tipu Mastan Auliya whose dargah is in Arcot, Tamil Nadu. Tipu built Mysore into a big power in southern India, inviting the attention of the East India Company. He ruled from 1782 to 1799 and made it difficult for the British to expand their territory in a four-decade-long battle, called the Anglo-Mysore wars. Tipu was accused of converting Christians and Hindus in Mangalore and Malabar to Islam and pillaging the wealth of the rich, but historians highlight his stature as the most formidable Indian ruler faced by the British. He supported four major temples in his dominion and pursued knowledge, speaking both Kannada and Marathi alongwith the Persian language.

“Tipu Sultan was the most formidable opponent of the British in India,” says Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who released a book, also titled Tipu Sultan: Image & Distance, at the opening of the exhibition. “There is so much controversy about Tipu about what he stands for. Some say he is a hero. He even sent a letter to Napoleon inviting him to join him in defeating the British. There is also the negative image of mistreating prisoners and looting villages,” he says, adding: “History is not the right battlefield to fight today’s politics. We should treat history on its own merit.”

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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