No one did more to commemorate Tipu Sultan than his inveterate enemies, and eventual victors, the British. Tipu’s dogged defiance and the storming of Srirangapatna led to the explosion of memorabilia, kitsch, poems and plays, promoting the development of completely new forms of art, such as Robert Ker Porter’s 2,550 square foot panoramic painting.
The memory of Tipu nourished the British imagination in the centuries to come. His indomitable courage, eccentricities, rich invective against his enemies, as well as spectacular attempt to redefine modernity in Mysore, from the design revolution focused on the babri (tiger) stripe to the reconstitution of army and economy, have continued to fire the imaginations of British writers, curators, art collectors and historians. This has been amply aided by the unrestrained plunder and loot of Srirangapatna in 1799 (amounting to £1.6 million then, distributed as prizes in steep grades to the British soldiers), which has led to large private collections of Tipu’s swords, jewellery, guns, carpets and clothes in Britain.
The Lal Bagh Palace, whose excellent garden was destroyed to provide fuel for the Third Mysore War, was finally dismantled in 1805. Neglect by the restored Mysore maharaja, Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, of the beautiful Lal Mahal in the fort, which was turned first into a barrack and then a
sandalwood godown, led to its eventual dismantling.
Srirangapatna had turned into a squalid, melancholy backwater by the mid-19th century, and Dariya Daulat, the only extant palace of Tipu Sultan in his capital, would have met the same fate — except for the timely intervention of Lord Dalhousie in 1854. When the protracted conquest of India was complete, and the memory of the worthy heroes of the 19th century had to be preserved and extended, he ordered that Dariya Daulat be restored. Were the British now suffused with a new appreciation of their implacable foe? Dariya Daulat, said Dalhousie’s minute, “most immediately and most vividly brings before us of this day the memory of that great man, with the early period of whose glorious career the East India Company must ever be proud to connect the history of its rule.” Arthur Wellesley, or the future Duke of Wellington, was memorialised — although he had hardly covered himself in glory during the battles with Tipu, it was his training ground for Waterloo!
Srirangapatna was soon turned into what I have called a “topography of conquest”, a new place of pilgrimage for British soldiers and tourists. From the 1870s on, those quartered at Bangalore were enjoined to revisit the sites of his fall and death, and vicariously participate in that glorious moment when the tide turned in favour of the British.
For most Indians, however, the memories of Tipu Sultan are braided in popular memory much more than in public commemoration. In fact, Dariya Daulat displays today rely much more on British retellings than on the rich vein of popular, if mixed, folklore around Tipu. Kannada scholars based in Hampi have remarked that there are more flattering lavanies about Tipu than the legendary Kumara Kampana. He is remembered in the Mappila Paattu of Kerala, in folk songs of Tamil Nadu, and in the practices at Sringeri and Melkote, to name just two temples.
There are the darker memories of Tipu as well, among Coorgs, Mangalorean Christians, and Nairs and Syrians of Malabar, who were at the receiving end of his contradictory approach to those he perceived as his political enemies. As a Muslim monarch of a largely Hindu population, and one whose lineage was distinguished by achievement, not ancestry, Tipu Sultan, like many of his time, attempted to produce a new idea of kingship.
If my brief historical excursion tells us anything, it is that every act of memorialising is at one and the same time an act of politics. The desperate zeal with which a symbolic reorientation of national memory is currently being attempted is instructive enough. The time and place of the memorial, the chosen aesthetic and materials, and so on are usually dictated by the kind of memory that is being invoked. There are both negative and positive commemorations, moments when we celebrate a heroic death or experiences we must never forget (slavery).
Of late, commemorations of Tipu’s enormous and contradictory legacy are increasingly overshadowed by real and imagined historical wrongs. The script for the sound and light show written by Lingadevaru Halemane for the Mysore Palace was countered on the grounds that it focused more on Tipu than on the restored Mysore maharajas, though Halemane stood his ground. The Kannada and culture department itself organised dance dramas using the lavanies of Tipu in 1999, two centuries after he was killed.
Perhaps no longer. The suggestion that the new Bangalore airport, which came up at Devanahalli, the birthplace of Tipu, be named after him was quickly snuffed out. The proposal to found a university in Srirangapatna named after Tipu, who built up an extraordinary library in his capital, had been strenuously opposed. The decision of the Karnataka government now to honour what is worthy and commendable about this 18th century monarch may be in line with similar decisions in the past, and is hardly the vituperative celebration of some historical “victor”. But perhaps the memory of Tipu is safest in the hands of his erstwhile enemies.
The writer is professor of history, JNU, Delhi, and author of ‘Mysore Modern: Rethinking the Region under Princely Rule’