What did Tipu do for culture?

The sultan commissioned paintings, got a treatise written in Dakhni on the music of Mysore, and brought Chinese masters to teach toy making to craftsmen in Channapatna

As infamous for the killings and plunder at Kodagu as he is famous for the love for exotic plants (Lalbagh), Tipu Sultan is one those few from centuries ago who still make it to Page 1 in our newspapers.

In the wake of the Karnataka government’s proposal to drop the controversial ruler from its textbooks, Showtime reached out to artists and historians to find out what the 18th-century ruler’s contributions to Karnataka’s arts and culture were. The art fraternity talks about at least two faces of Tipu. “The picture we have is that of a tyrant who was anti-Hindu,” says well-known art historian Suresh Jayaram.

“People were hurt, especially during the war against Coorg and the abduction of women in North Kerala.” But on the other hand, says Jayaram, Tipu loved plants and was an aesthete.

And among the arts, it was painting that captured Tipu’s imagination. “The Srirangapatna palace best reflects his taste in painting. There were wonderful artworks inside. And many of these are created just using floral colours,” historian Suresh Moona says.

H S Gopala Rao, former president of the Karnataka Itihasa Academy, says historical evidence clearly establishes Tipu’s fondness for painting. “The many paintings in his palaces at Srirangapatna and Bengaluru are proof of that,” he says. But for Tipu, being an aesthete did not mean giving way for every artistic impulse. “He was against sculpture and dance, because dance and some other art forms are forbidden in Islam,” Rao says. “And Tipu was very religious.”

Linguistics expert Karthik Malli says Tipu’s personal library can shed light on his cultural temperament. When the British laid siege to Tipu’s library, he says, they found 2,000 volumes in Dakhni. “According to a British catalogue compiled shortly after his defeat, Tipu Sultan’s Dakhni collection included epic romances, the Diwan (poetry collection) of Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, the founder of Hyderabad, a history of Bijapur, works on Sufism, an abridged version of Tipu’s own legal codes, and even a translation of a Sanskrit sex manual,” Karthik says.

“In addition, Tipu commissioned Hasan Ali Izzat, his poet laureate, to write literature in Dakhni. One of the works produced, the Izrab-e-Sultani or Fateh Nama-e-Tipu Sultan (1786), is a contemporary account, set in verse, of the battle of Adoni between the forces of Mysore and the Marathas in 1786. The Mufarrih al Qulub (1785), another Dakhni work by Izzat, is a treatise on the music of Mysore,” he says.

But one of the most interesting aspects of Tipu’s contribution to aesthetics may not be counted as “culture” by modern standards, but is still firmly etched in the modern imagination: toys.

“Tipu promoted toy making at Channapatna. He had brought workers from China to train people of the town in that craft,” Rao says. The venture does not seem to have gone in vain: His ‘tiger eating a British soldier’ is the most famous toy in Indian history. The toy, when in motion, shows a tiger mauling a European, even as its roar and the screams of a man are heard.

It is a clever plaything produced by a very dark imagination.

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