A battle scene under the hammer

SRIRANGAPATNA (SERINGAPATNAM) IS A town on an island in the River Kaveri in the state of Karnataka in southern India. I have been there several times as it is near a holy spot (the ‘sangam’, where three streams meet) where ashes of deceased Hindus, including those of my parents-in-law, are ceremoniously deposited in the waters of the Kaveri. The town near the sangam was the capital of the realm ruled by Tipu Sultan (1750-1799). This former capital of a great ruler is full of impressive architectural reminders of his era. One of these, which I have visited at least twice, is a Summer Palace, the Daria Daulat Mahal (literally, ‘Wealth of the Sea Palace’) built for Tipu in 1784. This lovely, large pavilion in the middle of a formal garden is decorated with huge painted murals depicting various subjects. Some of them show scenes of battles in which Tipu was involved, often with his enemy the British East India Company. Filled with fascinating details, these are well worth visiting.

On the 30th of March 2022, a wonderful artwork was auctioned at Sotheby’s auction house in London’s New Bond Street. Created in 1784, it is a painting measuring 31.6 feet by 6.6 feet. It is one of three copies of a work commissioned by Tipu for the Daria Daulat pavilion. It depicts the Battle of Pollilur fought on the 10th of September 1780 between the British troops of the East India Company and the Mysore Army led by Haider Ali (c1720-1782) and his son Tipu Sultan. Writing for the Sotheby’s website (https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2022/arts-of-the-islamic-world-india-including-fine-rugs-and-carpets/the-battle-of-pollilur-india-seringapatam-early), the author and historian William Dalrymple explained:

“At Pollilur, Tipu Sultan inflicted on the East India Company the most crushing defeat the Company would ever receive, and one which nearly ended British rule in India.”

He added, referring to the British:

“Out of 86 officers, 36 were killed, 34 were wounded and taken prisoner; only 16 captured were unwounded. Baillie received a back and head wound, in addition to losing a leg. Baird received two sabre cuts on the head and a pike wound in the arm. His ADC and young cousin, James Dalrymple, received a severe back wound and “two cuts in my head”. Around two hundred prisoners were taken. Most of the rest of the force of 3,800 was annihilated.”

Of the painting being auctioned at Sotheby’s, he wrote:

“The painting extends over ten large sheets of paper, nearly thirty-two feet (978.5cm) long, and focuses in on the moment when the Company’s ammunition tumbril explodes, breaking the British square, while Tipu’s cavalry advances from left and right, “like waves of an angry sea,” according to the contemporary Mughal historian Ghulam Husain Khan. The pink-cheeked and rather effeminate-looking Company troops wait fearfully for the impact of the Mysore charge, as the gallant and thickly moustachioed Mysore lancers close in for the kill. To the right, the French commander Lally peers triumphantly through his telescope; but Haidar and Tipu look on majestically and impassively at their triumph, while Tipu, with magnificent sang-froid sniffs a single red rose as if on a pleasure outing to a garden to inspect his flowers.”

As with all other items to be auctioned at Sotheby’s, the painting was put on display to the public for several days before the auction. We were lucky to have been able to view it, as we arrived only a few minutes before the public viewing period ended. One of the technicians at the auction house let us get close to the painting so that we could examine it much better than is possible when visiting the Summer Palace at Srirangapatna. I took the opportunity to take close-up photographs of details of this incredible record of late 18th century warfare. [You can view my photographs on the following website: http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/album/1319222] Some of them are quite gory, including decapitated heads with blood issuing from their severed necks. Many of the British can be seen being impaled by what looked like very thin, needle-like spears. I spotted one Indian soldier being struck on his head by a bayonet wielded by a Britisher. Some of the Mysore Army soldiers brandish rifles fitted with bayonets.

The British soldiers are mainly dressed in red jackets. Their opponents are depicted wearing clothes in a variety of colours. Most of the Indian soldiers have dark-coloured eyes but, as my wife spotted, some of the British have pale coloured (blue?) eyes.  Many animals appear in the picture: horses, camels, elephants, and bullocks. In addition to rifles and spears, there are other weapons in the painting including: cannon, swords of various kinds, and archery bows. Seen as a whole and in detail, the painting portrays great activity and a sense of the confusion that reigns in a battle. Whereas the British appeared to be maintaining orderly formations, their opponents can be seen making a terrifyingly massive onslaught in an apparently less organised, but ultimately successful, way.

Although words are inadequate to convey the impression made on me by this painting, I am glad that I was able to see it before it is sold. It was last exhibited for a few months in 1999 in the National Gallery of Scotland (Edinburgh), and before that for a few months in London in 1990. If it is sold to a private individual, it might not be available for public viewing again for a long time.

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