Mechanics of power

11th February 2005 at 00:00
A symbol of Indian resistance, 'Tippoo's Tiger' later represented the triumph of British rule. Kara Wescombe explains

Mechanical toys were popular in the 18th century. More than 200 years old and still roaring, this life-size automaton of carved and painted wood represents a tiger mauling a man. A crank handle operates two mechanisms which move the man's jointed arm, make the sounds of the tiger roaring and the cries of the victim. A flap in the tiger's side conceals an organ keyboard. The casing was made in south India and the organ works are probably European in origin, thought perhaps to have been made by a Frenchman in Tipu Sultan's service. Today, "Tippoo's Tiger" (Tippoo is an 18th-century spelling for Tipu) is housed at the VA, where it can be found in the India Gallery, one of the VA's impressive galleries of Asian art and design.

Although it was made with the intention of entertaining its owner, this striking sculpture and toy is also a symbol of conflict and power. It is likely to have been inspired by a story (not known as fact) of the soldier son of Tipu's opponent, General Sir Hector Munro, who was killed by a Bengal tiger. It also symbolises Tipu's fight for Mysore's independence from the British.

Tipu was known to his people as "the Tiger of Mysore", and had the tiger-stripe motif embroidered, carved, printed and painted onto many of his belongings, including clothes, weapons and a huge throne. Tigers were also kept chained in a private square in front of his palace. It is possible that the tiger-stripe motif was a symbol used by the previous ruling dynasty of Mysore and adopted by Tipu as a way of aligning himself to the Hindu people he now ruled. Tipu came to power as co-ruler with his father Haidar Ali in the 1760s. With his leadership, Mysore became very powerful and prosperous, and an effective opposition both to other Indian rulers and to the British in south India, who had been increasing their political and military control as well as acquiring Indian allies.

After his father's death in 1782, Tipu continued to fight against the British and with the help of French allies he had some success. However, not long afterwards, the French signed the Treaty of Versailles and withdrew their support. After a long war, Tipu was finally defeated and killed in 1799 at the battle of Seringapatam, a city near Mysore.

After his death, his treasures were taken by the British and brought back to England, including this musical tiger, no longer a macabre and satirical amusement but an ironic trophy which, for the British, symbolised Tipu's defeat. "Tippoo's Tiger" was first displayed to the public in East India House Museum and Library in London, where it received a lot of attention and popularised Tipu as a pantomime figure. By contrast, since the 20th century, Tipu has become a symbol in India of early resistance to British rule, a national icon featured in comics, television series and academic debate.

In the 1880s, after several moves to other locations, Tippoo's Tiger was rehoused at the South Kensington Museum, which became the VA in 1909. The tiger underwent extensive restoration because of damage during the Second World War but has since remained on permanent display. The public can no longer operate it but a video can be viewed on the VA's website.

Kara Wescombe is the VA's head of formal education

Tipu Sultan 1750-1799

The 'Tiger of Mysore', Tipu was the eldest son of Haidar Ali. By 15, he accompanied his father, the ruler of Mysore, on a range of military campaigns and after his father's death continued to fight for Mysore's independence. With more than 2,000 books in his library, Tipu was highly educated and respected; he invested in new technology, agriculture and trade, establishing Mysore as a prosperous city, still known today for its silk industry. Tipu was buried in a tigerskin-patterned mausoleum outside the fort of Seringapatam.

Lesson ideas

Art and design

KS 1-2

Make a large collage of a tiger. Use a range of materials and printing techniques to make the stripes. Stick on the organ keys and then make a flap that can be lifted to reveal them. Out of the tiger's and soldier's mouth - cut and paste words and letters, for the roars and cries, (newspapers could be used as a source). Complete the display with written or dramatic improvisation about the story.


Tipu's symbol was the tiger. Ask your students what animal they would choose for their symbol. As a starting point, explore Indian textiles and design before making their own drawings and designs. Develop sketches to make designs for fashion and accessories, interior designs, or screen savers and mobile phones.

KS 4-5

Tippoo's Tiger is an object with a rich history. It is also a symbol of power and unrest. Using the story of Tipu Sultan, experiment with animation using drawings, photograps, models or collage.

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