Eye of the tiger

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 51

Tipu Sultan of Mysore was demonized by the British as a 'furious fanatic'. In fact, he was a connoisseur and an esthete whose love of art extended even to his dazzling armory says William Dalrymple

It was time to take out Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Arch enemy of the East India Company, Britain's proxy rulers in India, the great 18th-century warlord was more than a match for its private armies.

According to British sources, this Muslim chief of state was an "intolerant bigot", a "furious fanatic" with "a rooted and inveterate hatred of Europeans", who had "perpetually on his tongue the projects of Jihad". He was also deemed to be "oppressive and unjust ... [a] sanguinary tyrant, [and a] perfidious negociator".

Armed with more firepower than the British could often muster, he was certainly a force to be reckoned with – as the spectacular examples of the Sultan's arms and armor offered at Bonhams Indian and Islamic sale demonstrate.

The minister who oversaw the East India Company, Henry Dundas, had just the man for the job: Richard Wellesley, brother of the future Duke of Wellington. In 1798 he was sent out to India as Governor General with specific instructions to effect regime change in Mysore and replace Tipu with a Western-backed puppet. First, however, Wellesley and Dundas had to justify to the British public a policy of which the outcome had already been decided in private.

Wellesley began a campaign of vilification against Tipu, portraying him as an aggressive Muslim monster who divided his time between oppressing his subjects and planning to drive the British into the sea. This essay in imperial villain-making opened the way for a lucrative conquest and the installation of a more pliable regime which would, in the words of Wellesley, allow the British to give the impression they were handing the country back to its rightful owners while in reality maintaining firm control.

Until recently, the British propaganda offensive against Tipu has determined the way that we – and many Indians – remember him. But as with more recent dossiers produced to justify pre-emptive military action against rich Muslim states, the evidence presented reveals far more about the desires of the attacker than it does about the attacked.

Recent work by modern scholars has reconstructed a very different sultan to the one-dimensional fanatic invented by Wellesley. Tipu, it is now clear, was one of the most innovative and far-sighted rulers of the pre-colonial period. He tried to warn other Indian rulers of the dangers of an increasingly aggressive West: "Know you not the custom of the English?", he wrote in vain to the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1796. "Wherever they fix their talons they contrive little by little to work themselves into the whole management of affairs."

What really worried the British was less that Tipu was a Muslim fanatic, something strange and alien, but that he was in fact a modernizing technocrat who used the weapons of the West against their own inventors. Indeed in many ways he beat them at their own game: his infantry's flintlocks – examples of which will be auctioned by Bonhams – were based on the latest French designs, and much superior to the Company's old matchlocks. Moreover Tipu's artillery had a heavier bore and longer range than anything possessed by the Company.

In many other respects, too, the Mysore troops were more innovative and tactically well ahead of the Company armies: firing rockets from their camel cavalry, for example, long before William Congreve's rocket system was adopted by the British army. More worrying still for Wellesley, the defenses of the island fortress of Seringapatam Tipu's capital city, designed by French engineers, provided the most up-to- date defenses that the 18th century could offer, including the newly increased fire-power of cannon, bombs and mines, as well as the latest developments in tactics for storming and laying siege to forts.

Tipu also tried to import industrial technology and experimented with harnessing water-power to drive his machinery. He sent envoys to Southern China to bring back silk worm eggs and established serriculture in Mysore – an innovation that still enriches the region. More remarkably still, he created what amounted to a state trading company with its own ships and factories across the Persian Gulf. British propaganda might like to portray Tipu as a savage barbarian, but he was in fact a connoisseur and an intellectual, with a library containing some 2,000 volumes in several languages not only about theology, ethics, Sufism, cosmology and Islamic jurisprudence but also history, poetry, secular sciences, mathematics and astronomy. As one scholar has commented: "This was a library to do a Mughal prince proud." Tipu designed and introduced a new coinage and a new calendar. He sought exotic fruits, cloves, camphor trees and rare spice plants from around the world and had grafts and saplings to be sent to his gardens in Seringapatam.

Tipu was, above all, as the objects in this sale show, one of the most lavish and discerning patrons of art of the period. Perhaps the greatest of all the arts of court of Tipu is the metalwork and jewelry. Visitors to the bazaars of Seringapatam described the fabulous richness of the jewels on display: gleaming rubies the color of pigeon's blood and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds, superbly inscribed spinels and jeweled daggers, champlevé scabbards and manuscripts of the Koran, their bindings inlaid with burnished gold and empurpled ebony.

There were other more effete fopperies too: bejeweled and enameled fly whisks, and bazubands set with yellow topaz and the rarest chrysoberyl cat's eyes. Tipu's treasury also contained magnificent examples of Bidriware, another art that seems to have had a shot in the arm from the patronage of Tipu's court. He was also a remarkable connoisseur of metalwork produced elsewhere in India: the translucent dark blue enamel-covered silver huqqa set, inlaid with diamonds and rubies, which once belonged to Tipu and is now in Powis Castle in mid-Wales, is one of the most stunning late Mughal objects to survive from the 18th century.

Although Tipu may be remembered today principally as a battle-hardened general, he was clearly an esthete: in the murals of the 1780 battle of Pollilur which he commissioned on the walls of his palace, he is depicted watching the British defeat from the howdah of his beautifully caparisoned elephant, delicately sniffing at a pink rose. He clearly loved the beautiful objects which filled his carefully amassed treasury, and, as one observer put it, he "passed the greatest part of his leisure hours in reviewing this various and splendid assemblage of his riches".

Above all, it was the customizing of art objects with Tipu's own symbol of the tiger that marked out the art of his court from that produced elsewhere. Whether it was in the emerald-inlaid tiger heads or paws from his throne, the decorations of his cannon and blunderbusses, the tiger-striped damascening of the blades of his swords, the image of the tiger is everywhere, unambiguously proclaiming the richness and opulence of his taste.

In a few years, Tipu succeeded in filling his capital city with beautiful palaces and gardens, mausolea and mosques. This was something the British were aware of even as they destroyed it: James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the hero of my book White Mughals, was a young soldier at the time, and greatly admired what he saw of Tipu's pleasure gardens: "They please me very much," he wrote. "They are laid out with some taste and design, the numerous cypress trees that form the principal avenues are the tallest and most beautiful I ever saw."

When the British finally conquered Seringapatam in 1799 and killed Tipu, they were even more astonished at the magnificence of the jewels and art objects that he had collected. Tipu knew what he was risking when he took on the British, but as he said himself, "I would rather live a day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep." As the objects in this sale show, the culture of innovation Tipu fostered in Mysore reveals a man very different from that imagined by the Islamophobic propaganda of the British. The fanatical bigot and savage was in fact a connoisseur, an esthete and an intellectual.

William Dalrymple's most recent book, Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan won the Hemingway Prize.

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