More than two centuries after his death, Tipu Sultan's possessions continue to lure art lovers and historians. Rare paintings depicting the battle of Pollilur, and a finial of his throne, recently rediscovered, were in the spotlight even as they went under the hammer at Sotheby's and Bonhams, London, last month.
“What man is, only his history tells,” German historian and sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey has rightly said. The interest in Tipu Sultan's memorabilia and objects at the two auctions in early October speaks volumes about how this powerful 18th century ruler of Mysore is remembered.
More than two centuries after he died defending his capital, Seringapatam, from the British, the Sultan continues to entice the world and how. In Sotheby's biannual Arts of the Islamic World Sale on October 6, a set of 24 rare and rediscovered preparatory paintings depicting the Battle of Pollilur was sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £769,250. The auction house was expecting the paintings to fetch £650,000 to ?800,000.
Vignettes of history
Going back 230 years, the paintings celebrate the finest hour of the fearless leader who, fighting alongside his father Haider Ali, crushed the East India Company forces in the famous Battle of Pollilur.
A day later, on October 7, the second finial from Tipu Sultan's famous octagonal golden throne went under the hammer at Bonhams Indian and Islamic Art sale. Inclusive of buyer's premium, it sold for £434,400 exceeding the auctioneer's estimated price of £200,000 to 300,000.
The gem-set gold finial, 8.4 cm high weighing 346 gm, in the form of a tiger's head, one of the eight from the throne, rested with a Scottish family for the past years 200 years and had come to the seller by direct descent.
In April last year, industrialist Dr Vijay Mallya created a buzz with the purchase of the first finial at Bonhams auction at a whopping £ 389,600. Discovered by Bonhams Islamic Department on a routine valuation, that spectacular piece of decoration first lay in an English castle for a 100 years and then in a bank vault, unknown to Tipu enthusiasts and scholars.
These finials made of gold sheet over a natural resin core, finely smoothed and burnished, and set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds adorned Tipu Sultan's throne – the throne he refused to ascend till he had vanquished the British. Tipu Sultan died on May 4, 1799 defending his capital Seringapatam, his throne plundered by the marauding army.
A third finial rests in Powis castle. There is one more known finial that appeared in a London auction in 1973 and was then offered by a London antiques dealer in 1974. The current location of this finial is not known.
Kristina Sanne, head of the Indian and Islamic art department at Bonhams, says, “There are possibly four more finials in existence, although they might have been broken down over the years.”
Also on sale at Bonhams on October 7, was Benjamin Sydenham eyewitness account, running over 50 pages, of the death of the Tiger of Mysore. Addressed to Earl Macartney and written in beautiful copperplate script in 1799, Sydenham describes the death of Tipu Sultan by the wounds he encountered in the Battle for Seringapatam. This extraordinary document was estimated to sell for £10,000 to £15,000 but made £86,400. This just goes to show the fascination for the written word even in this digital age.
The two auctions were a happy confluence of objects related to Tipu Sultan, who according to culture theorist and art curator Ranjit Hoskote, “has been a figure of enduring romance and mystery in the British historical imagination, ever since his death by treason at the Battle of Seringapatam.”
Or, as Edward Gibbs, Head, Middle East Department, Sotheby's London and Maithili Parekh, deputy director, Sotheby's India, put it, “Tipu Sultan was a truly remarkable figure and is rightly regarded as a great national hero in South Asia and a hero to Muslims throughout the wider Islamic world.”
Born Sultan Fateh Ali Khan, Tipu Sultan was the son of Haider Ali, commander-in-chief of Krishnaraja Wodeyar II and de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. Young Tipu fought alongside his father in the Second Mysore War.
Tipu commissioned the mural installed in the Daria Daulat Palace, Seringapatam in 1784 to commemorate his father's victory at the Battle of Pollilur in 1780. The mural and preparatory paintings illustrate Haider and Tipu splendidly attired on their elephants supported by their army and the French mercenaries under the command of Monsieur Lally and the Maratha troops.
The British feared this man, who Sydenham described as: “in stature about 5' 8” and not very fair, he was rather corpulent, had a short neck and high shoulders, but his wrists and ankles were small and delicate.”
“So quick was Tipu Sultan in his movement that to the enemy he seemed to be fighting on many fronts at the same time,” says Dr Dulari Qureshi, director and professor of department of tourism, Babasaheb Ambedkar University, Aurangabad, who lectures on the history of warfare at military schools.
In 1791, the mural was painted over following the Treaty of Mysore, when Tipu was forced to surrender his two sons as hostages. Thankfully, Colonel Wellesley subsequently got the mural restored possibly using these preparatory paintings as a reference.
Hoskote says that the timing of the auctions is significant. “At a time when the relationship between the Islamic world and Europe is in close focus – with debates over immigration, cultural assimilation, global jihad and the rising tide of Western neo-conservatism – such moments take on dramatic contours. They allow us to reassess the flow of history through the modes of patronage and representation. To look at Tipu Sultan's Mysore now is also to look at a modern State before the rise of Western-style modernity, a State that was inclusive in its approach to the composite and multi-religious society it governed.”
Independent curator and art historian Arshiya Lokhandwala, makes a case for bringing back such treasures to India but raises the larger question of whether India has the mindset to give them their rightful place.
Seven years ago Dr. Mallya had successfully bid for the Sword of Tipu Sultan and followed that up with other memorabilia of the Mysore leader with the intention to set up a museum of these rare objects of Tipu Sultan. Till then, auctions such as the ones earlier this month, will continue to give a glimpse of Tipu, the man, remembered through his remarkable history.