Taming tigers

18th century India in The Tiger's Dream: Tipu Sultan

Taming tigers

A new exhibition has arrived on our shores all the way from 18th century India. Jessica Bailey Ackerman met with museum curator, William Greenwood, to discuss ‘The Tiger’s Dream: Tipu Sultan’ and the extraordinary story behind the man and the legend.

Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India, is a legend in British and Indian history. A villain to some and a hero to others, his story is fascinating. Even to this day, Tipu Sultan’s memory divides many opinions and ignites passionate discourse.

When I met with Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) curator, William Greenwood, I have to admit I didn’t know much about Tipu Sultan, otherwise known as The Tiger of Mysore, but the legend soon drew me in. William’s area of expertise and study has typically covered most of Arabia but for this exhibition he shifted his focus to a new area of interest, South Asia. He chose Tipu Sultan because he believes he was an extraordinary man, regardless of interpretation, whose story deserves to be told.

The Tiger’s Dream is drawn entirely from the Museum of Islamic Art’s own collection. There are 36 objects, 24 of which are from a single painting and the rest a variety of 3D objects, including a half ton brass canon, a sword that belonged to one of Tipu’s closest guardsman and a beautifully decorated gun barrel.

Perhaps it goes without saying at this point but Tipu Sultan had a fascination with tigers. He owned six creatures as well as a life-sized semi-automated, wooden carved tiger that is shown to be mauling a British soldier, complete with gut wrenching sound effects of screams and growls. He even had his throne shaped and striped like a tiger.

Most of the objects on display have the symbol of the animal embedded within somehow, whether it’s the tiger’s head as the handle of the sword or in the base of the canon. ‘The brass canon, although a weapon, is also a tremendous artwork,’ says William.

The title of the exhibition, ‘The Tiger’s Dream’, reflects the obvious connection to tigers but it also comes in reference to the vivid dreams that Tipu Sultan recorded in his journal which was discovered by soldiers in a three day looting spree. A large portion of Tipu Sultan’s dreams focused on defeating the British and it was because of his eccentric dreams that William and the MIA team decided to pay homage to it in the exhibition’s title.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is one large painting divided into 24 individual paintings. William takes me back to a time when Tipu Sultan reigned; ‘In his palace he had a mural depicting his victories over the British in the Battle of Pollilur in 1780. It was a spectacular victory for him, albeit devastating for the British, being one of the most upsetting defeats they encountered.’

A few years after the defeat, Tipu Sultan negotiated with the British and entered into a peace treaty. During negotiations, the British insisted that, due to the violent nature of Tipu Sultan’s mural, with illustrations of mutilated British soldiers, it should be whitewashed. Subsequently it has been uncovered again, but has also been damaged.

The painting, which belongs to MIA, is essentially what William refers to as ‘a first attempt or preparation painting for the original mural.’

He says, ‘Many of the missing details from the mural have been preserved in our painting but whoever cut it up didn’t do the kindest job, wrapping edges around a board and losing some of the detail. We have managed to digitally stick it back together however some parts are still missing.’

The painting tells a story in what William calls a ‘comic strip’ fashion, illustrating Tipu Sultan’s victory and featuring a few gory details, including discarded body parts, which may revile some and intrigue others. William explains that one of the last times this painting was viewed, to his knowledge, was in the home of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in Chelsea in 1983. This will be the first time it is shown in Qatar.

The painting has been done on rice paper and over the years has been varnished in order to preserve it, which has affected the colours but they still remain exceptionally vivid. It may be the focus of the exhibition, standing at around 30 foot by seven foot, but it’s the man behind the tale that draws you in – a man whom William fondly refers to as ‘a remarkable man, reformer, poet, military genius, statesman and a real character.’
The Tiger’s Dream: Tipu Sultan is in Museum of Islamic Art Special Exhibition Gallery from September 29 2014 to January 22 2015 22nd January 2015. Free admission. Open Sun-Mon and Wed 10.30am-5.30pm; Thu and Sat noon-8pm; Fri 2pm-8pm.

The story of Tipu Sultan

Born: November 20 1750 in Devanahalli (although this date has been debated).

Father: Haider Ali who fought alongside him in the Battle of Pollilur.

Reign: 1782-1799

Legend: He was an innovative leader with his state policy created to benefit everyone irrespective of caste, creed or class. He regarded all his subjects as equal citizens with the right to live in peace and harmony. He was a strongly religious man and built the first church in Mysore.

Interesting fact: According to popular belief, just before he was killed in the Fourth Mysore War, French military advisors suggested that he escape through secret tunnels and avoid battle, to which he responded ‘one day of life as a tiger is far better than thousand years of living as a jackal.’

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