Dramatic lighting and black walls set the mood for the viewing of historical paintings dedicated to Tipu Sultan, the enfant terrible of British India, who made Company officials quake in their boots.
‘Tipu Sultan: Image & Distance’, Delhi Art Gallery’s (DAG) exhibition of over 90 artworks, including prints and maps, curated by Giles Tillotson, brings to life the colourful yet propagandist narratives behind the Mysuru ruler as seen through the eyes of East India Company painters. There is also an accompanying book on the subject, authored by the curator.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the oils on display is the one by Henry Singleton (1766-1839), which shows Tipu with his turban thrown off, his sword drawn, and a British soldier grabbing him firmly by his arm as the others surround the rest of the Sultan’s posse. One can see a mixture of defeat and bravery in Tipu’s expression as he tries to resist till the very end. Titled ‘The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun’, the artwork, created for a British audience much after the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War it depicts, is being shown in India for the first time.
“Tipu Sultan posed the most powerful challenge to the might of Britain’s East India Company in the period of its greatest territorial expansion,” writes Tillotson. Building on the legacy of his father Haider Ali, during the course of his relatively short reign as ruler of Mysuru, Tipu (1782-99) proved to be an efficient and firm governor of his state, flexible in forming alliances but ready to be aggressive towards his neighbours,” he says.
While Tillotson firmly wishes to stay away from the raging political conversations around Tipu in the wake of the right wing’s pushback, he does acknowledge the historical importance of doing a show such as this in India. “Bucking the trend of Indian works of art being exported abroad, we decided to bring this material to India, to display to Indian audiences,” says Ashish Anand, MD and CEO of DAG.
The exhibition consists of a large body of works — paintings, prints, maps and other objects — and crafts a story around the Mysore Wars fought by Tipu and his father Haider Ali. The images are naturally based on the British view of the time, but they have been critically examined by curator Tillotson to reflect the changing perceptions of this epic battle and its political and social fallouts.
With this exhibition, Anand and his team of art specialists seek to make the public question themselves on where they stand with respect to Tipu. “Some idolise him while others are fiercely dismissive of his contributions. What cannot be disputed is that he was the most formidable foe the British faced in India,” he says. “How these images are interpreted in India today is what this exhibition explores.”
On till August 31, 2022, at DAG, The Claridges, New Delhi.
The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a creative writer and visual artist by night.