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  3.3 Tipu Sultan, Ruler of Mysore  

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Tipu Sultan, Ruler of Mysore (1750-99)

Gouache on paper
26.5 x 17.7 cm

Mysore c.1790-1800

Unknown Indian Artist

he date generally accepted for Tipu's birth at Devanahalli is 20th November 1750, and although details of his childhood are few and largely uneventful, descriptions of the adult Tipu are many and varied. Beatson describes him thus: 'His stature was about five feet eight inches; he had a short neck, square shoulders, and was rather corpulent: his limbs were small, particularly his feet and hands; he had large full eyes, small arched eyebrows, and an aquiline nose; his complexion was brown, and the general expression of his countenance, not void of dignity.' This is also the image familiar from many surviving Tipu portraits. Here, Tipu is dressed entirely in green, a Muslim holy colour, which he wore in later life. Kirmani also notes that his green turban (Shumlehdar) was twisted 'after the fashion of the Arabs.'

A more familiar portrait shows Tipu, clad in a white muslin jama. A full-length portrait survives at the Darya Daulat palace, attributed to Zoffany, which may have been known to Thomas and William Daniell.

This is the image which Kirmani, one of Tipu's most poetic biographers, sought to evoke when he wrote: 'In his courts, splendour of kingly magnificence and majesty were well sustained; he profited in sciences; wrote and composed with ease and elegance.' Although he was 'not lavish in his habits,' while travelling, Tipu wore 'a coat of cloth of gold, or of the red tiger stripe embroidered with gold.' Beatson also mentions Tipu's 'selection of the tiger as an emblem,' and adds that Tipu was 'passionately fond of new inventions…In his palace was found a great variety of curious swords, daggers, fusils, pistols, and blunderbusses; some were of exquisite workmanship, mounted with gold, or silver, and beautifully inlaid and ornamented with tigers' heads and stripes, or with Persian and Arabic verses.' 'He has been frequently heard to say, that in this world he would rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep,' wrote Beatson of Tipu. For two hundred years, the Scotsman's words have been quoted whenever Tipu's name is mentioned.

Even in his life time, there were widely divergent opinions about Tipu, and the spelling of his name often caused confusion. Dirom notes: 'we wrote it wrong, for instead of Teepoo we spelled Tippo …but have corrected it from the medal stricken by Louis XVI from France in honour of Tipu's ambassadors.' From another Scotsman, Sir John Lindsay, we learn that Haidar ensured that 'Tipu became an expert soldier, joined his father in military campaigns. Tipu became ruler of Mysore on his father's death in 1782, and proclaimed his policies in numerous hokumnamas 'Religious tolerance is the fundamental tenet of the Holy Quran…' (1787); 'Agriculture is the life blood of the nation…' (1788); 'There can be no glory or achievement if the foundation of our palaces, roads and dams are mingled with the tears and blood of humanity…' (1789). A new calendar was introduced; new coinage proclaimed Tipu's regal authority; seven Government Departments were established and new names given to forts and cities - Mysore became Nazarabad; Devanhalli became Yousfabad. 'All was innovation on his part and fear of further novelties on the part of others,' reflected a confidant, Syeed Hussain. 'All the world was puzzled as to what distinct character should be assigned to a sovereign who was never the same.' Beatson suggests that it was only his actions 'of recent date' i.e. in the years leading up to 1799, which 'conveyed the idea of an unsettled and capricious mind. Every year, often every month, presented a new change of system; and before it was at all comprehended, a fresh plan was introduced, and as quickly abandoned.'

In India today, this reassessment of Tipu's character and policies continues, gaining momentum (and political emphasis) in recent years. Some of the headlines are as dramatic as those of the 19 century melodramas: 'The first freedom fighter?'; 'Tipu Sultan: Villain or Hero. An Anthology'; 'Tipu Sultan's Protection for Hindu Temples.' Even the most comprehensive of recent reassessments - 'Tipu Sultan's Search for Legitimacy' which discusses kingship and Tipu's approach to it; and 'Sunset at Seringapatam,' with its catalogue of surviving objects, do not offer a final or conclusive solution. The question was succinctly posed in an article written in 1997 by the Professor of Sociology at the University of Poona: 'So who was Tipu? A forward looking freedom-fighter and nationalist, or a feudal religious fanatic?' Scotland's great author, antiquarian and romantic, Sir Walter Scott, has left us with one memorable definition. Commenting on the abdication of Napoleon Buonaparte in 1814, Scott wrote: 'although I never supposed that he (Napoleon) possessed, allowing for some difference of education, the liberality of conduct and political views which were sometimes exhibited by old Haidar Ally, yet I did think he (Napoleon) might have shown the same resolved and dogged spirit of resolution with induced Tippoo Saib to die manfully upon the breach of his capital city with his sabre clenched in his hand.' This was the spirit of the Tiger of Mysore.

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