Monday 3: Tipoo's Tiger
c.1790

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Behind a glass cabinet in the South & South East Asia Collection, you find one of the V & A’s most curious artefacts. What we have here is a near life size tiger on top of a white British soldier wearing his red military jacket and black hat. The tiger’s front legs are upon the soldier’s chest as if pinning him down and the tiger’s open mouth is touching the soldier’s neck as though the tiger is attacking and killing the soldier. From this angle, the man looks static/paralysed with fear. However if you look at this sculpture from the other side, you will see the soldier has lifted his left hand up towards his face in a sign of distress. Something less evident in this brutal scene, which adds to its drama, is what lies within the tiger. If you look closely at the neck of the tiger, you will see a curved handle. If you were to turn this handle, the soldier’s left hand moves up and down and creates a wailing noise as if he were writhing in pain as the tiger mauls him to death. As well as this you may notice there are some hinges. If you unlock this flap, inside you will find a small pipe organ which can be played while the handle is turned. 

 

The V & A was created during the height of the British Empire which is a period of power through colonisation and expansion. Britain took control of India through the founding of the East India Company in the 17th Century. What makes this sculpture interesting is its political stance. This piece is anti-colonisation, anti-imperialism and anti-British.  It was created for Tipoo Sultan, who ruled the Kingdom of Mysore in the South of India from 1782-1799.  At this time in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte was gaining power in France. He would become one of Britain’s most prolific enemies. Wanting to obliterate Britain's power over India and the rest of the world, Bonaparte planned to join forces with Tipoo Sultan. However, a french defeat by the British navy led by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of the Nile meant that the support needed was not granted. This gave way for the British Colonel Arthur Wellesley (who would later become Duke of Wellington in 1814) to march into the capital of Mysore, Srirangapatnam during the fourth Anglo-Mysore war. Tipoo Sultan put on a brave fight while resisting the attacks but he was killed. The citadelle was then raided and this sculpture was found among Tipoo Sultan’s possessions. His nickname was the Tiger of Mysore and this sculpture is a symbol of how Tipoo Sultan felt about the British. He is this allegorical tiger who is mauling the British soldier to death.