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Tipu’s Tiger - A Mysterious Toy & an Unmatched Piece of Artwork

Over the past century, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum has an intriguing art piece on display- Tipu’s tiger.

Tipu’s Tiger is a large automaton, i.e. it is a machine that can move by itself. It shows a tiger attacking a European man and when played, the man’s left arm flails and the organ emits a painful crying sound from his mouth and grunts from the tiger. The striking feature of the tiger is its change in ownership and meanings: it was made for the great Indian king, Tipu Sultan, who spent most of his adult life fighting and later died while fighting the British. After his death, the toy became a tool for imperial propaganda in Britain.

Tipu Sultan (1750 –1799) was the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore and was famous for his strong and assertive leadership as well as for his administrative innovations. Tipu Sultan had introduced the new Mauludi lunisolar calendar, the land revenue system and used unique iron-cased Mysorean rockets to fight against the British.

Tipu Sultan adopted the tiger as a personal symbol of his rule and he used representations of tigers to decorate his throne, weapons, armour, walls and uniforms. The British referred to him as the “Tiger of Mysore" too.

Tipu’s mechanical tiger was a part of this personal display, albeit an unusual one. It combines a painted wood casing (possibly made by an Indian craftsman) with an internal metal and ivory mechanism (possibly made by a European craftsman working at his court).

In 1799 , during the the fourth Anglo-Mysore War, the British army defeated Tipu Sultan and took his capital Srirangapatnam. During this war, Tipu Sultan was also killed, and the soldiers serving under the British vandalised his palace and city. Many of Tipu Sultan’s valuable treasures were distributed as prizes and pieces of his magnificent gold throne were sent to the king and the East India Company directors in London. The mechanical tiger was also sent to Britain.

For Tipu Sultan, the mechanical tiger represented his hostility to the British, but for the British, it came to represent the type of ruler he was. The mechanical tiger was placed on display shortly after it arrived in London, and it became an emblem of fierce hostility between the British and Indian rulers. At the height of the British Empire, it was associated with colonial propaganda which depicted Indian leaders as cruel tyrants. More recently, in the postcolonial context, the tiger has come to represent Indian resistance to British rule, as well as British prejudice and imperial aggression.

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