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.

She died for the Empire

I HAVE MISLAID my copy of “Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan” by Jean Overton Fuller (1915 -2009), first published in 1952. Jean was born in England, the only child of an officer in the British Indian Army. She was a friend of the Inayat Khan family, one of whom was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (1914-1944). At the end of WW2, Jean travelled around Europe interviewing people who had been connected with Noor’s activities during WW2.

 

Noor 4

A few days ago, during a pleasant walk in London’s West End, we stopped near Hyde Park Corner to look at the memorial to those citizens of the Indian subcontinent who had fought for the British Empire during the two World Wars. Part of the memorial is a small pavilion that looks Indian in design. The ceiling of this structure is inscribed with the names of those who were awarded the prestigious George Cross and Victoria Cross awards during the two Wars. We looked up at the names, not expecting to see any that we would recognise, but were both surprised and pleased to see that one of the names is ‘Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan’, who was awarded the George Cross, posthumously. Noor and her family were not people we knew, but her story was familiar to us.

Noor was born on the first day of 1914 in Moscow, where her father had arrived (from Baroda, now in Gujarat) in 1913 to promote Sufism in the ‘West’. Her father’s family were Muslim nobility, her father’s mother was a descendant of the great Tipu Sultan, who died in 1799, fighting the British. Her mother was an American of European origin.  Shortly after Noor’s birth, her family shifted to London, where Noor attended a nursery in Notting Hill. By 1920, the family had moved to Paris. At the outbreak of WW2, the family fled to England, landing at Falmouth in Cornwall.

During WW2, after joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (‘WAAF’), she soon became a member of Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), where she underwent tough training. Already a trained wireless operator, she had an advantage over other women who were to be ‘courier’s, who worked behind the enemy lines helping to support those resisting the Nazis. Her fluency in French was another advantage that Noor had over many of the other couriers. Also, her appearance was such that it could easily have been considered European.

Noor was flown from Britain to Europe on the night of 16th /17th June 1943 and landed in northern France. Her courageous exploits have been well-described in a detailed book by Shrabani Basu, “Spy Princess”, published in 2006. Sadly, her presence in France was betrayed (by one of two Frenchmen), and she was first arrested by the Gestapo on about the 13th of October 1943. After intense interrogation, during which she revealed nothing of use to the Germans and nothing that compromised her comrades,  she was shot at dawn in the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in September 1944. In addition to being awarded the George Cross, Noor was also a posthumous recipient of the French Croix-de-Guerre. A commemorative blue plaque on her last home in London, 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, was the first to be put up in honour of a woman of Indian origin.

Michael Richard Daniell (‘MRD’) Foot (1919-2012, the historian and former member of SOE, wrote in his introduction to Basu’s book:

“Holders of the George Cross are out of the common run; Noor Inayat Khan was even farther out of it than most.”

The memorial near Wellington’s triumphal arch at Hyde Park Corner was inaugurated in 2002. In addition to recording Noor’s name, there are over seventy other names of those awarded either the VC or the GC. Many of them have Indian sounding names, such as Noor’s, but a few have names that sound English, such as FC Booth and ECT Wilson. The Indian names suggest a fair mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh recipients of these medals. Of the Indian recipients, or those who have Indian sounding names, of the two honours, the VC and the GC, awarded during WW2, the only one who was involved in behind-the-lines espionage and resistance activities was the young Noor Inayat Khan.

Noor was in favour of Britain giving India her freedom, ending its status as a colony within the British Empire. However, unlike some of the fighters for Indian independence like Subhas Chandra Bose, who favoured an alliance with the enemies of Britain during WW2, she was, to quote Basu:

“… convinced that Indian leaders should not press for independence when Britain had its hands full of fighting the war. She felt that if the Indians backed Britain and won gallantry medals it would create a sense of confidence in them, and the British would readily grant independence to India after the war…”

After WW1, there were 22 Indian recipients of VC and GC, but Britain did not relieve its domination of India. Instead, it began to tighten its grip. Noor and the other awardees of the high honours for bravery as recorded in the monument near Hyde Park Corner demonstrated the gallantry of people from the Indian sub-continent, but I am sure that this was not part of the reason that Britain released its long hold on its prize colonial possession in 1947.

I am sorry that I cannot find my copy of Overton Fuller’s biography of Noor. It is the source of some of the information in Basu’s book, which contains much material that Overton Fuller did not have access to when she wrote her book. When I find it eventually, it will be interesting to compare what the earlier author wrote about Noor with what Basu wrote 54 years later.

Unsuitable for the elderly

I HAVE ONLY VISITED Nandi Hills once. That was in 1994. My wife’s grandmother was approaching the age of 97.

We were staying with my in-laws in their two storey house in Koramangala in the south of Bangalore. One day, it was decided that a visit to the Nandi Hills would be fun.

Nandi Hills is about two hour’s drive north of Koramangala. Perched on the summit of a steep hill, Nandi Hills used to be a summer fortress of the great Tipu Sultan, whose life ended at the end of the 18th century.

Given that at our excursion destination there would be steep paths and uneven ground, it was sensibly considered that it would not be a good place to take a frail 97 year old.

My wife’s grandmother (‘Granny’), who was fully alert intellectually, was not at all happy with the idea of missing the trip.

While the family was assembling the copious amounts of food to eat during the journey and at our destination, several of us noticed Granny, who usually never left the ground floor, sprinting up and down the stairs leading to the first floor.

When Granny had completed her athletic feat, she came up to us and said:
“See? I can easily manage the stairs. So, I can join you on the trip to Nandi Hills”
My parents in-law employed a great deal of tact tinged with a modicum of firmness to get Granny to agree, somewhat reluctantly, to remain at home.

The road that ascended from the plain up to the fort at the summit of the Nandi Hills was spectacular. It had at least twelve extremely tight hairpin bends, each one numbered.

We spent a pleasant couple of hours picnicking in the garden amongst rusty old cannons near the fort. My wife and I walked to some stone Hindu temples overlooking a sharp cliff-like drop down to the plain far below. One of the temples housed a large stone carving of a Nandi Bull, a creature found in many Hindu temples.

I suppose that once travel becomes safely feasible again, I would love to pay another visit to Nandi Hills.