Why we love to hate Tipu Sultan
By Vikram Sampath
LiveMint - 09 November 2015
After the storming of the fort of Srirangapatna in May 1799, which led to the annihilation of the most feared foe of the British—Tipu Sultan of Mysore—the victors found a curious toy in his chambers. “The Musical Tiger”, as it was called, was made up of a tiger preying on an English soldier, and so constructed that by the turning of a handle the animal’s growls mingled with the shrieks of its dying victim. Tipu’s favourite toy kept him busy in his waking hours and further deepened his hatred for the British.
The conquerors were amused by this contraption and shipped it to London and, strangely, parked it in the India Office Library. Tipu’s spirit seemed to plague his foes even after his death and hence, as the librarian A.J. Arberry recounted in his memoir The Library of the India Office: A Historical Sketch, “when students were in the midst of deep study, the possessed toy would suddenly swing into action scaring the wits off everyone there with its loud shrieks and growls!”
Much like the toy playing its act on unsuspecting students, the ghost of Tipu Sultan resurfaces every now and then, allowing contemporary politics to play out on either side of the debate—be it controversies related to naming a university after him, his outlook towards other religions or Kannada, or, as we saw last weekend, the decision of the Karnataka government to honour him with a tableau at the Republic Day parade.
Reactions have predictably been divided down the middle and along expected lines. “So Karnataka is all about Tipu Sultan who killed thousands of Hindus??? Is this what secularism is all about??” screamed one tweet while another questioned, “If TN or West Bengal send a tableau of Robert Clive, will Centre accept it?” The Kannada literary world too is traditionally divided into pro and anti camps, with the likes of Girish Karnad and U.R. Ananthamurthy on one side and S.L. Bhyrappa on the other. The true casualty in all this cacophony has unfortunately been history, and sadly, Tipu Sultan himself.
'Tipu's Tiger' is an awesome, life-size beast of carved and painted wood, seen in the act of devouring a prostrate European in the costume of the 1790s. It has cast a spell over generations of admirers since 1808, when it was first displayed in the East India Company's museum. On the dissolution of the Company fifty years later, its properties were transferred to the Crown, and the contents of the museum eventually dispersed to appropriate institutions. The tiger was among items allotted to the Indian Section of the South Kensington Museum, now called the V&A.
Copyright: © V&A Images