Describe in your own words one painting from this chapter which suggests that the British were more powerful than Indians. How does the artist depict this?

The history paintings dramatise and recreate various episodes of British imperial history. These paintings celebrated the British—their power, victories and supremacy. One such painting is the one shown below.

The discovery of the body of Sultan Tipu by
General Sir David Baird, 4 May 1799, painted by David Wilkie

This painting, like most imperial history paintings, aims to project the superiority of the Britishers over the Indians. On the face of it, the painting relates to an episode from the annals of history—the defeat and death of the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. But this historical episode has been re-created and re-presented in a manner that serves to further the glory of the colonial masters. The artist makes use of several strategies to do so.

The first thing to note is that we are shown a dead and defeated Tipu Sultan. He lies in some sort of a ditch with other dead men. In contrast, we see the standing and victorious David Baird. So, quite simply put, what we are presented with is the triumph and victory of the imperialist forces and the defeat of all its enemies. In the war between the Indians and the British, the British will always be “the last ones standing”.

David Baird stands on an elevated platform while Tipu lies literally at his feet. The royal clothes of Tipu are torn; he is without armour or weapons. This is a way of saying that the land, which had so far been protected by Tipu and others such as Tipu, is lying defenceless, at the mercy of the British.

His tattered condition also signifies a lost regality. He is now no more the king of Mysore. On the other hand, there is David Baird in his formidable attire, signifying that Britain is the new ruler of Mysore, and not only of Mysore but also of the entire land known as India. This is sort of reinforced by David Baird’s forefinger, which points in an undefined, general direction. Through the pointing of his forefinger, David Baird seems to say, “There is still a lot to conquer and subdue”. Already, by pointing away from the moment at hand, Baird shows that Tipu Sultan is part of the past. The future beckons the British. Tipu Sultan lying in semi-darkness and David Baird being lit up by the lantern are also strategies that seem to suggest the invincibility and all-powerful nature of the coloniser. Tipu is the setting sun while the East India Company (through the figure of David Baird) is the rising sun. In fact, at one time, the colonisers believed that the sun never set on the British Empire.

The play with light and shade tends to highlight only one aspect of the battle, i.e., the victory of the imperial forces. The tragedy that accompanied this victory is relegated to the darkness. So, the artist’s attempt is to present a triumph and glory in its unmitigated form.

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