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In the last year, Tipu Sultan has been at the centre of controversy after the Karnataka government decided to celebrate 10 November as Tipu Sultan Jayanti and kicked off celebrations — which were opposed by right-wing Hindu groups. As with most historical figures, the story of Tipu too is not a straight black-and-white story; leading Tipu scholar and historian Dr Kate Brittlebank has now written Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan to shed light on one of the most important Indian historical figures. Juggernaut editors Nandini Mehta and Parth Mehrotra spoke to her over email to shed more light on Tipu, the man and the warrior:Kate Brittlebank

What drew you, as a historian, to research and write extensively on Tipu Sultan? What are the aspects of his rule and his personality that most interest you?

In some ways, it was a pragmatic choice to select Tipu as the topic of my PhD thesis over 25 years ago. Only one or two academic histories had been written about him and it seemed time for a new assessment, taking into account recent developments in historical methods. I was also intrigued by the fact that such contrasting views existed of him. My continued interest in Tipu was the result of realising that there was so much more to him than the fact that he ended up being killed by the British. He is of historical interest in his own right. I am interested in particular in placing him within the culture of his time in order to understand why he acted in the ways that he did.

In what ways did Tipu stand out from the other Indian rulers of his time?

He stood out primarily in his attitude to the British, which he had inherited from his father, Haidar Ali. Both men recognised the risk posed by becoming too closely involved with the English East India Company, which is why no Europeans were allowed to enter Mysore territory without permission, at the risk of arrest.

Tipu's Tiger with keyboard

Tipu’s famous mechanical tiger has a miniature organ with keyboard and bellows to simulate the groans of a dying British officer.

Tipu had the habit of recording his dreams. Why did he do this?

This was normal practice at that period. There is a long tradition of dream interpretation within Islam, going back centuries. Dreams were used for prognostication – along with astrology and bibliomancy (opening books at random) – as well as to bolster legitimacy. Kings would use dreams to support their right to rule, for example, and Sufi sheikhs to enhance their charisma and leadership. When the British searched Tipu’s palace after his death, they found a book in which he had recorded some of his dreams, so this is how we know about them.

How should one judge a historical figure: by the standards and practices of his times, or by contemporary standards

This is a very interesting question. The task of the historian, when conducting research, is to try to be as objective as possible but we are only human and therefore will likely be affected by what we find that might challenge our own modern sensibilities or morality. Primarily, the goal of the historian is to understand rather than judge. If we do judge, then we should do so according to the practices and standards of a historical figure’s time, not our own.

More than 200 years after his death Tipu Sultan remains a compelling– and controversial — figure to contemporary Indians. Why do you think so?

The reasons for this are twofold. The first is historical: Tipu was extensively vilified by the British after his death, to justify the fact that they had killed him. It was in their interests to portray him as bigoted, a tyrant and a usurper. Once established, this kind of imagery was available to be drawn on by others who wished to demonise him. At the same time, local Muslims saw him as a shahid or martyr, who had died fighting unbelievers. These two views developed simultaneously and fed into the second reason, which is essentially political: during the colonial period, the manner of Tipu’s death meant that he came to be regarded as the first Indian nationalist; but after the rise of communalism in the late 19th century, he became a figure of hate for certain non-Muslim Indians, who adopted the earlier British view of him. Also, how Tipu is regarded in India today depends on who you are and where you live. In the south, people have a better knowledge of who he was but there are also those whose ancestors suffered at the hands of Haidar and Tipu, who will never regard him favourably. In northern India, on the other hand, responses to Tipu as a historical figure are likely to be less informed and less emotional.

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An example of the propagandist paintings produced in Britain after Tipu’s death to celebrate his killing and glorify the capture of Srirangapattana. Artist: Henry Singleton (1766–1839).

Tipu is popularly associated with fine objects, textile and jewellery. Can you describe what a scene from his court may have looked like?

All kings used displays of luxury and wealth to demonstrate their power and overawe the viewer. Thus it was in the public arena that fine objects, textiles and jewels would have been at their most obvious, such as in the darbar – held daily in the public audience hall – or in royal processions. Flags and banners, royal regalia such as fly-whisks, staffs and silverware, wall hangings, fine carpets and velvet cushions would have been judiciously placed to augment the ceremonial of the court. Tipu himself would have been decked out in his jewellery and fine clothing.

What explains the particular affinity between Tipu and Haider, and the French? What impact did political circumstances in France have on Tipu and his father?

It would be a mistake to think that any kind of affinity existed between the Mysore rulers and the French. The relationship between the two powers was purely pragmatic, according to the maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. For Haidar and Tipu, the French were useful as a source of military and technical expertise and as an ally against the British. After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and, later, the British Navy’s destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the alliance was of no further benefit to Tipu, although his sketchy knowledge of European politics meant that, right up until his death, this was something he failed to understand.

Were Tipu and his father better or fairer rulers than the Wodeyars?

This is not a question that historians would ask, so it is not one I can really answer. Tipu certainly aimed to be a just ruler and the sources indicate that he was perceived that way by many of his subjects.

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Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan is now available on the Juggernaut app here.

2 Comments

  1. Antony.K.A. / July 18, 2016 at 5:49 pm /Reply

    The author may not be aware of the brutalities done by Tipu Sultan to the ancient, native Syriac Christians of Kerala. He set fire many old churches built before western colonialists set foot in India. He forcefully converted many of these Christians to Islam and subjected to bonded and cruelties in Sreeragapattinam, those who refused. Luckily, his army started operation, from north Kerala, could not advance beyond Aluva, due to heavy rain fall and flood in Periyar river. This a truth known to all communities, including Hindus.

    • Boris / August 17, 2017 at 12:19 pm /Reply

      @Anthony
      Kate Brittlebank has done a PhD in the subject. Don’t think that you know more about Tipu than her.

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