A Tiger Burns Bright
A NEW BOOK AND EXHIBITION ON THE CONTROVERSIAL TIPU SULTAN SEPARATE MONARCH FROM MYTH
Afew 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, faraway 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 of which can now be viewed at DAG’s Tipu Sultan exhibition in New Delhi) 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 colonising 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 socio-cultural norms of his time. Besides editor Giles Tillotson’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 that locates the role of women in the Mysore court by attempting to explain their absence from artistic descriptions of key events—their children being taken away from them as hostages, for instance, as in the case of two of Tipu’s sons. Savitri Kumari writes about Tipu Sultan’s political strategies and artistic patronage in another detailed essay that considers some of the paintings in the Darya Daulat Palace. She 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. ■ (The exhibition Tipu Sultan: Image & Distance will be on display at DAG, The Claridges, New Delhi, until August 31, 2022)
Q. You’ve won national awards before, but does this one feel special in any way?
The subject of this song and the documentary [1232 Kms] makes it very special, also since the pandemic affected all of us in different ways. We are the privileged ones who did not have to face survival problems, but the story of the daily wagers and labourers, those who had to travel thousands of kilometres to reach their homes, was such a horrific and painful one. In fact, I felt guilty for being safe and happy with my family at home. The song I composed for this documentary [1232 Kms] was a catharsis.
Q. Covid has often left us feeling helpless. At some level, is ‘Marenge To Wahin Jaakar’ a reminder that we can all do better? ‘Marenge To Wahin Jaakar’ is a song that is diametrically opposite to the song from Maachis— ‘Chhod Aaye Hum Wo Galiyan’, which talks about leaving home in search of a better life. ‘Marenge To Wahin Jaakar’, on the other hand, says this is not worth it. Home is the place that matters the most.
Q. You’re making
Khufiya for Netflix. Has directing a spy thriller proved challenging in any way?
No, it was a treat. It brought back the child in me. It took me back to a time when we used to enjoy reading spy novels and espionage stories. It’s the genre that I love the most.
Q. Kuttey, your son Aasmaan’s directorial debut, releases on November 4. As both his father and producer, how hard a taskmaster have you been?
I’ve not been his taskmaster. On the contrary, I want to be his friend and his support, which I tried to be. I am also his co-writer. We wrote the script together. Sometimes we have different points of view, but that’s the sign of a healthy, creative partnership.