By Syed Ali Mujtaba
Even as majoritarian politics in Karnataka led by the rabid Hindu nationalists are trying to vilify the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, as a “Hindu butcher,” a monumental painting commissioned by the wilily Tiger of Mysore in 1780 is reshaping its image as the only warrior of India who can defeat the invincible British forces in the open battlefield on the country’s soil.
Neither the Hindu Marathas of the Rajputs nor the Sikhs have any history of triumph against the British but for the warrior of Mysore, who accomplished such a unique feat. The painting ‘The Battle of Pollilur’ is an illustration of an Indian defeating a colonial army and shows a mirror to the diabolic forces of the day who are hell-bent to paint ‘Tipu Sultan’ as a villainous character in Indian history.
This brilliantly illustrated painting depicting a historic victory of Mysore ruler Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan over the East India Company on September 10, 1780, was offered for sale at auction in London recently. The painting was part of the centerpiece of the Arts of the Islamic World and India sale at Sotheby’s auction house in London fetched a whopping price of Rs 6 crore 26 lakh (£6,30,000) on March 30, 2022.
The painting ‘Battle of Pollilur’ was commissioned by the legendary hero of Mysore as a visual record of the battlefield to commemorate his victory over the British army. The painting became a part of a large deception for the newly-built Daria Daulat Bagh palace in Seringapatam, the capital of Mysore in 1784.
The monumental painting is nearly 32-foot long and 9 meters in width and depicts the ‘Pollilur’ battle scene and the victory of the Mysore army over the British on September 7, 1780. The painting shows British soldiers struggling against the Mysore army.
According to reports, the painting extends over 10 large sheets of paper, focusing on the moment when the East India Company’s ammunition tumbril exploded, breaking the British square, while Tipu’s cavalry advanced from left and right, “like waves of an angry sea.”
William Dalrymple, the much-admired colonial historian, calls this painting “arguably the greatest Indian picture of the defeat of colonialism that survives today, and he adds to it that “it’s a unique and fantastic work of art.”
Describing the painting, Dalrymple writes; “the pink-cheeked and rather effeminate-looking Company troops wait fearfully for the impact of the Mysore charge, as the gallant and thickly mustachioed Mysore lancers close in for the kill.”
“On the other end of the painting, the Mysore army is shown attacking the Company forces on both sides as they form a square around an injured Scottish soldier named Colonel William Baillie sitting in a palanquin, who had led a column of four thousand Indian sepoys,” Dalrymple describes.
“The left side of the painting shows Haider and Tipu looking on majestically and impassively at their triumph. “Tipu, with magnificent sang-froid sniffs a single red rose as if on a pleasure outing to a garden to inspect his flowers,” Dalrymple further wrote in the description of the painting.
The painting “Battle of Pollilu” clearly tells the story of the indomitable Tipu sultan’s heroics that Indians can not only fight the British but even defeat them on the battlefield.
The illustration is an account of India’s iconic hero confronting the Europeans on the battlefield and winning against them. This is something unique and unparalleled in Indian history.
The painting captures the “sheer energy” of the victory of the Indian war hero over the East India Company and accounts graphically for the most “crushing defeat” the Indian warrior inflicted on the British.
The painting was brought to England by Colonel John William Freese, who was in Srirangapatnam after Tipu’s defeat in 1799. Freese’s family handed it down over generations before selling it to a private collector in 1978, who then sold it in 2010.
The work was auctioned on March 30, 2022, as part of a private collection in London. This painting was displayed earlier at several exhibitions all over the world.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org