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What does the modern Indian think of Tipu Sultan?

A new show at DAG seeks to explore changing perceptions of the controversial ruler, around 222 years after his death

Detail from Robert Ker Porter’s ‘The Last Effort Of Tippoo Sultan In Defence Of The Fortress Of Seringapatam—The Storming Of Seringapatam—The Glorious Conquest Of Seringapatam’ (triptych); engraved by John Vendramini. Images: courtesy DAG

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In 2020, DAG acquired a major painting by British artist Henry Singleton (1766-1839), The Last Effort And Fall Of Tippoo Sultan, at an auction. This became the starting point for the exhibition Tipu Sultan: Image And Distance, which will open at the gallery’s premises in The Claridges, Delhi, on 25 July. It was painted shortly after the siege of Srirangapatna in 1799 that led to the death of Tipu Sultan, by a British artist for a British audience. Singleton, who did not visit India, provided a view of the siege—of the final assault and the breach in the palace walls.

“Bucking the trend of Indian works of art being exported abroad, we decided to bring this material (related to a major historical event) to India, to display to Indian audiences,” says Ashish Anand, managing director and CEO, DAG. Many of the paintings related to the siege and the four Anglo-Mysore wars, fought between the East India Company and Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan from 1767-99, are now housed in institutions abroad—such as the National Portrait Gallery, London—and will never be available for auction. “However, this work by Singleton has always been in private hands,” says Giles Tillotson, show curator and senior vice-president (exhibitions and publications), DAG. “A lot of paintings from that period had been issued as prints. We decided to keep an eye on the art market for more, and, in a short period, got 100-plus works.”

The exhibition will feature paintings, prints, maps and objects which offer a visual history of the Mysore wars, collected from around the world and now housed permanently in India. It aims to examine changing perceptions of the controversial ruler and the beginning of a new chapter in British painting.

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Henry Singleton, ‘The Last Effort And Fall Of Tippoo Sultan’ (oil on canvas).
Henry Singleton, ‘The Last Effort And Fall Of Tippoo Sultan’ (oil on canvas).

Most of the works were created by British artists for a British public that eagerly followed the wars. History painters—as the term suggests, artists who depicted great events from history—were quick to understand the possibilities and though many of them never visited India, produced works based on eyewitness accounts or pure imagination.

The Last Effort And Fall Of Tippoo Sultan is, for instance, an entirely imagined scene. “No one saw Tipu dying. His body was found after the siege was concluded and it is unlikely that he died in a close encounter. It is a completely invented image,” says Tillotson. So, too, the depictions of two of Tipu Sultan’s sons, who were captured by the British and taken to Lord Cornwallis’ camp in 1792. Mathew Brown, an American artist resident in London, reconstructed the scene from imagination, showing a beneficent Cornwallis holding the hands of the children as they looked up at him trustingly.

The public paid a good sum to view the works, rejoicing in propagandist art about the triumph of Company soldiers. The English audience was visually illiterate when it came to India—if they got the turban wrong, no one in London would have known. It was only much later that art historians and scholars became critical of the costumes in which Tipu Sultan was represented.

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“Some other military leaders, both ancient and modern—such as the Roman general Germanicus and Lord Nelson—enjoyed pretty good runs, but in the closing decade of the 18th century, artists fed a public appetite for images relating to Tipu Sultan on a scale that was unsurpassed by any other comparable figure,” writes Tillotson in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

Mather Brown, ‘The Delivery Of The Definitive Treaty By The Hostage Princes Into The Hands Of Lord Cornwallis’, engraved by Daniel Orne.
Mather Brown, ‘The Delivery Of The Definitive Treaty By The Hostage Princes Into The Hands Of Lord Cornwallis’, engraved by Daniel Orne.

To offer a wider context, the show includes works by Indian artists from the same period. In Political Strategies And Artistic Patronage Of Tipu Sultan, one of five essays in the book, historian Savita Kumari discusses the visual culture of Tipu’s court, particularly the murals on the walls of the Dariya Daulat palace in Srirangapatna that glorified Haider Ali and his son as powerful rulers of the Deccan. The western wall depicted a sprawling procession from the Battle of Pollilur in 1780, when Ali and Tipu defeated the British forces. When juxtaposed with Robert Ker Porter’s panorama of the siege of Srirangapatna 19 years later, two very different perspectives on war painting emerge.

Porter’s painting, 120ft long, was displayed at the Lyceum Theatre in London from April 1800 to January 1801, being set up in a curve to surround the viewers. The artist charged every visitor a shilling, a huge sum. The painting was destroyed in a fire but prints of it survived; one of these will be on show at DAG.

This begs the question, why showcase a colonial gaze to an Indian audience today? Scholarly and popular views on Tipu Sultan remain polarised. “What cannot be disputed is that he was the most formidable foe faced by the British in India. Our exhibition considers how the narrative might have changed, 222 years after the siege,” writes Anand in his foreword. DAG’s curatorial team hopes, then, to explore what he means to Indians today.

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Tillotson adds: “Normally, it is a criticism when you say that you have taken things out of context. Here, I have deliberately taken them out of one context and put them in another. There is displacement in time as I have taken them out of the 1800s and put them in 2022. The works have been taken out of England, their original home, to be displayed in Delhi. The question I want to ask is, when a modern Indian audience comes to grips with this British perspective of the Mysore wars, how does that change the way it thinks about Tipu Sultan?” He hopes audiences will respond to the works and introspect on the shifts in perception, if any.

Detail of the west wall (at the Dariya Daulat Palace) showing the Battle of Pollilur, with a French officer watching through a telescope.
Detail of the west wall (at the Dariya Daulat Palace) showing the Battle of Pollilur, with a French officer watching through a telescope.

The accompanying book, edited by Tillotson, also contains chapters by specialists such as Janaki Nair and Jennifer Howes, who explore the changing perceptions of Tipu’s Sultan’s reputation and legacy.

Nair, for instance, takes a historical view, stating that people who seek to deride him now as a tyrant tend to base their assessment on biased evidence produced by the British at the time. She also examines the legacy of Tipu, whose short reign (1782-99) saw the modernisation of military technology, revenue collection and new industries. “In addition to the material loot and plunder of Srirangapatna, the British also profited from the experiments that Tipu Sultan had conducted—with war weapons, for example, or with dam building or silk rearing. One such realm of knowledge was the art and science of rocketry. In 1801-02, long before Intellectual Property regimes became the norm, it was quite easy for Colonel (later Sir) William Congreve to borrow generously from the designs and operations of the Mysore rocket to develop and test some of the biggest skyrockets available in London,” writes Nair. She goes on to examine the ruler’s obsession with the tiger as a symbol of courage, and the various commissions—carvings, textiles, models—around this theme.

Tillotson’s essay looks at a new chapter in British painting. Until then, history painting had represented classical scenes from Greek or Roman history and literature. The artists realised the same style of painting could be used to depict contemporary scenes . “The Mysore wars gave the opportunity to develop this style,” says Tillotson.

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The other thing that struck him was how the narrative around the Mysore wars was all about men. But where were all the women? That’s where London-based Jennifer Howes’s research becomes important. She has been able to identify archival documents made after the siege of Srirangapatna and reconstruct stories of women from Tipu Sultan’s court. “After the siege, a young officer was asked to go in and make note of all women—who were the queens, servants, musicians and cooks? Who needs to get a pension or not? This document, which has been neglected for 200 years, at least gives some aspect of women’s stories,” says Tillotson. “We have brought out elements of this research as well.”

Tipu Sultan: Image And Distance can be viewed at DAG, The Claridges, Delhi, from 25 July-31 August.

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