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A mural lionizing an Indian ruler is sold at auction. His legacy is contested.
The battle scene depicts a victory over British troops by an 18th-century Muslim, a man India’s current government would prefer was forgotten. Courtesy Sotheby's.

by Mike Ives



NEW YORK, NY.- The mural shows Indian cavalry troops advancing from both sides on a cornered British army, guns blazing. In one part of the 18th-century battlefield, the victorious commander sits on an elephant holding a red rose.

To a leading British historian of India, the roughly 32-foot-long masterpiece, which was sold at auction in London on Wednesday, is an artistic triumph and a potent symbol of Indian resistance to British imperialism.

“It’s arguably the greatest Indian picture of the defeat of colonialism that survives,” the scholar, William Dalrymple, told Sotheby’s, the auction house overseeing the sale. “It’s a unique and fantastic artwork.”

But in modern India, the commander’s legacy is complicated. Politicians from India’s governing political party, which has increasingly embraced Hindu nationalist rhetoric under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have spent years downplaying his achievements. The commander, Tipu Sultan, was a Muslim; they say he is responsible for the deaths of Hindus.

The mural was sold Wednesday afternoon in London for 630,000 pounds including fees (about $830,000). It was unclear who provided the winning bid. Sotheby’s said before the bidding started that the mural was most likely worth 500,000 to 800,000 pounds. News of the auction was reported earlier by the BBC.

The mural consists of 10 large sheets mounted on canvas and is thought to have been made in the early 19th century. It depicts the Battle of Pollilur in 1780, part of the Anglo-Mysore Wars that took place in southern India around then. It celebrates not only Tipu Sultan, who was about 30 at the time, but also his father, Haidar Ali, then the ruler of Mysore state.

Mysore was among the strongest states to emerge when the Mughal Empire collapsed in the 18th century after dominating the Indian subcontinent for about 200 years.

During the decades that Haidar Ali and later Tipu Sultan ruled Mysore state, reports of their attacks on British trading settlements were carried in British newspapers, “embellished by distance as they were carried home by sea,” according to a 2016 biography of Tipu Sultan by historian Kate Brittlebank.

By the time he died at the hands of British troops in 1799, Brittlebank wrote in her book, Tipu Sultan was “possibly the most famous Indian, if not villain, in the United Kingdom.” His nickname was the “Tiger of Mysore.”

Dalrymple said the Battle of Pollilur was the first defeat of a European army in India and “nearly ended” British colonial rule there.




“Tipu Sultan was probably the most effective opponent that the East India Company ever faced,” said Dalrymple, the author of a 2019 book on the company, which was founded in 1599 to run British trade in Asia and eventually developed into a large army with a trading division.

“Tipu showed that the Indians could fight back,” he added. “That they could win. That they could use European tactics against the Europeans and defeat them.”

During the 20th-century movement for independence in India, he was celebrated as a prototype of a nationalist “freedom fighter,” according to a 2015 essay on his legacy by Akhilesh Pillalamarri in The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine.

Today, grand buildings associated with Tipu Sultan, including a mosque, dot the landscape in and around Mysore. The Karnataka state government promotes the buildings as tourist attractions.

At the same time, officials from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to downplay Tipu Sultan’s legacy across India. They objected to a 2015 plan to celebrate his birthday and a more recent one to erect a statue of him in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, among other projects.

The BJP-led state government in Karnataka state has convened a special committee to review whether other Muslim leaders have been “glorified” in local school textbooks. Officials in the party, and their supporters among India’s Hindu nationalist right wing, tend to characterize Muslim rulers of the past as invaders who threatened Indigenous Hindu culture.

Modi’s nationalist message has often pitted Hindus against Muslims. In recent months, calls for anti-Muslim violence in India have increasingly moved from the fringes to the mainstream, even as Modi and top BJP leaders have remained silent.

In modern India, Tipu Sultan is controversial in large part because he was a Muslim ruler whose subjects were mostly Hindus and Jains, Brittlebank wrote in her book, “Tiger.” The British colonial authorities once drew attention to that same contrast, she added, even though it had been common for Muslims to govern non-Muslims on the Indian subcontinent during the Mughal Empire and for years afterward.

British colonial propaganda portrayed Tipu Sultan as a “one-dimensional fanatic,” but work by modern scholars has reconstructed a “very different Tipu,” Dalrymple wrote in an essay for Sotheby’s ahead of the auction.

“What really worried the British was less that Tipu was a Muslim fanatic, something strange and alien, but that he was in fact frighteningly familiar: a modernizing technocrat who used the weapons of the West against their own inventors.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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