Tippoo’s Tiger

Tippoo Sultan's Tiger Automaton/Statue

Contributor: Jean-Marie Fournier

Location: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Description: Now an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Sultan Tippoo’s « Man-Tiger organ » is simultaneously an automaton, a sculpture in the Gothic taste, a musical instrument, an instance of popular craftsmanship in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and an elaborate practical joke. The object enjoyed great popularity in its day, celebrated in penny broadsides, chapbooks and newspapers, so that its fame was well-established long before it reached England. When it did arrive in Britain in 1800, it was exhibited first in the Tower of London, and then in East India House, Leadenhall Street. There it was seen by both William Blake and John Keats.

A perfect « orientalist » contraption and an early example of globalization, the tiger was manufactured in 1793 by Indian craftsmen to accommodate a mechanism devised by a French toy mechanic and an organ of Dutch conception. The sculpture itself, crude, clumsy and all but ludicrous, represents a British soldier, clad in an East India Company uniform lying supine with a tiger sprawling upon him. The tiger’s face expresses greediness and malice, the soldier’s, predictably, fear and sheer, albeit caricatured, horror. A trap on one side of the animal gives access to a keyboard and pipes, transforming the object into a miniature grind organ. A handle causes air to blow through the pipes while the soldier raises one arm in alarm.

Tippoo’s tiger has obvious political resonances. Following the fall of the Mughal Empire, Tippoo’s father, Hyder Ali, had led the Indian rebellion against British rule during the Second Mysore War (1780 – 1784). Tippoo had taken up the fight after his father’s death in 1782. Seeking support from Revolutionary France, Tippoo had engaged in a regular correspondence with members of the French National Assembly, of which, as “Citizen Tippoo”, he became an honorary member. Tippoo’s consistent role as a champion of India’s liberty, the major part he played in the third Mysore war (1789-1792) and his death in the battle of Seringapatam in May 1799 gained him recognition as one of India’s outstanding war heroes, a position he still holds in today’s Bharathiya Janata Party’s (BJP ‘s) official propaganda. With France and England almost constantly at war and the French Revolution raging, « Citizen Tippoo »’s appeal to the French may easily be construed as polemic.

Tippoo was universally known for his fetishistic attachment to tigers. His motto was “The Tiger is God”. He made obsessive use of them as ornaments for his furniture and weaponry and displayed live individuals caged in his zoos or chained against the walls of his palaces. All of this gained him the nickname of “The Tiger of Mysore”. If, by ordering this tiger-organ to be made for him, Tippoo was obviously following his own taste and endeavouring to live up to his legend, he was also adding to his aura as a ruthless tyrant with countless atrocities to his name, past and to come. This heartless image was reinforced by the fact that a young man had indeed just been devoured by an Indian tiger, causing a wave of emotion to sweep over England. This young man was none other than Sir Hector Munro’s son, the very same Hector Munro who had defeated Hyder Ali in the Second Anglo-Mysore War of 1780-1782 and killed him. Munro had also recently taken two of Tippoo’s sons as prisoners. Tippoo’s commission thus conveyed an unmistakable, albeit manifold, political message.

Besides and beyond its gruesomeness, the sculpture is tinged with a measure of eroticism. Surrounded by real tigers, Tippoo’s organ was displayed near the entrance to his extremely large harem, its fascination increased by the thrill of the tantalizing vicinity of a seraglio, the epitome of « Oriental » eroticism, currently fashionable in Europe thanks to the publication in 1763 of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters from Turkey. Moreover, the respective – and provocative – postures of tiger and soldier, so demeaning for the latter, can be, and have been, viewed as suggesting rape. In the sultry heat of South India and in the context of the ongoing feud between the Sultan and the Company, such an object, staged in a sadistic, almost Sadeian, context, surrounded by chained tigers and so close to the gynecea of the Sultan, must have provided Tippoo’s visitors with a memorable experience.

Tippoo’s tiger also draws on the Indian taste for animals used as symbols. This taste, evinced, among others, by The Pancatantra and Indian mythology, was echoed in Europe in a corresponding fascination for exotic animals fostered by East India Company painters, and official iconography on both sides made lavish use of such icons. The lion, war-like, fearless, domineering, was the emblem of The East India Company and Britain. The tiger, sly, cruel, blood-thirsty, and preferring ruse over courage, was that of India. Many contemporary allegories show the animals fighting each other. If the medals given to British soldiers after the battle of Seringapatam show the lion as victor, Tippoo’s Tiger subverted the symbolism, making it more explicit while turning it upside down. A similar reversal can be seen in the capitals that decorate the Hall of Mumbai University, built in the 1870s to incarnate the Indian movement of liberation, and on which embossed tigers overcome powerless lions. The exhibition of Tippoo’s tiger in the Tower of London was thus merely a re-reversal of that symbolism. Paraded and consumed in this context, Tippoo’s tiger was a form of triumph , since by then Tippoo was already dead.

Tippoo’s tiger clearly resonates with all kinds of topical and contemporary issues, mixing high-brow sophistication and popular culture, the taste for stupendous machinery with a fascination for wild life, nature and culture, anecdote and history, politics and fun, eroticism and warfare, the East and West. No wonder it survived both in the dreams of contemporary politicians as well as in those of poets. William Blake certainly knew already about Tippoo’s tiger through magazines before he actually saw it – and was inspired to write his own less political, more metaphysical version of the “Tyger” – whose spelling with a “y” may signal the exotic, undigested newness of the animal as well as being an index to its sublime otherworldliness and introducing the questioning mood of the poem.

Acknowledgements : Inspiration for this post and many details come from Hermione de Almeida and George H. Gilpin’s Indian Renaissance. British Romantic Art and the Prospect of India, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

Date: 1793

Subject: Tipu Sultan

Media rights: Wikimedia Commons : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:India,_tigre_di_tippoo,_1790_circa.JPG

Object type : automaton/musical instrument

Format : painted wood, ivory and metal

Publisher : Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Digital collection record : http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O61949/tippoos-tiger-mechanical-organ-unknown/

Catalogue number : 2545 (IS)