Tipu Sultan: Image & Distance

A new book and exhibition on the controversial ruler separate the monarch from the myth

This story was originally published in India Today.

The Seige of Seringapatam

A few years ago, Delhi Art Gallery acquired a seminal work, “The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultan”, painted in England after the death in 1799 of the Tiger of Mysore, that near-mythical, often controversial leader who led one of the most successful campaigns against the British East India Company in the four Anglo-Mysore wars.

An engraving of the painting was one of the most widely circulated images of these battles between British troops and Tipu’s forces, sometimes allied with the French. Like most depictions of Tipu’s life and his encounters with the British, it was painted by an artist who conjured up a fantastical tableau without much first-hand knowledge of the setting.

The title of this finely produced volume alludes to the distance over which such complex events as the last battle at Tipu’s stronghold at Srirangapatna were viewed, and reproduced as fixed, far-away images. But it also refers to our own historical distance from these events and the controversial nature of Tipu’s public image today.

Through a well-curated selection of images (many from DAG’s vast collection) and five essays, Image & Distance grapples with Tipu’s legacy from various angles, using art related to the events of the time, commissioned in England to inform and glorify the colonizing mission.

Masterfully laid out and edited, the book brings much nuance and detail to the story of Tipu’s life and his military career, as well as the sociocultural norms of his time. Besides Tillotsen’s introductory essay, which explains why such a deep dive was required, the other accompanying articles are both scholarly and accessible, covering a range of different topics.

An essay by Jennifer Howes on “The Women of Tipu Sultan’s Court” is a fascinating piece of detective work in locating the role of women in Mysore court, or rather attempting to explain their absence from artistic descriptions of the events. Even as their children were being taken away from them as hostages (in the case of two of Tipu’s sons).

Savitri Kumari write about the Tipu Sultan’s political strategies and artistic patronage in another detailed essay that considers some of the paintings in the Darya Daulat Palace, and discusses how the ruler used art to carve a place for his kingdom in eighteenth-century India. This chapter is brilliantly illustrated and deeply evocative of Mysore.

Janaki Nair’s very contemporary take on The Lives and Afterlives of Tipu Sultan places the old and new controversies around Tipu in refreshing perspective. Tillotson’s second thoughtful chapter on history painting and the British imagination, and Aditi Mazumdar’s inquiry into eyewitness accounts of the Mysore-Anglo Wars round out this view – both magnifying and telescopic – on a singular leader.

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