Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Tipu's Tiger: The Famous Automaton of London's V&A Museum

London's V&A (Victoria and Albert) Museum in South Kensington is a treasure house of delightful curiosities. For me, none is more intriguing than a musical automaton depicting a "European" (actually a British soldier in The East India Company army) being mauled by a tiger.  

Known as Tipu's Tiger, it was created for Tipu Sultan of Mysore (ruled 1782-1799).  

Tipu adopted the tiger as his personal symbol. He used it on his soldiers' uniforms and weapons and on many objects in his palace and his capital, Seringatpatam. His personal epithet was "Tiger of Mysore." He said he would rather live two days as a tiger than a hundred years as a sheep.

Tipu spent much of his reign fending off attacks by the British East India Company, which sought to add his domain to its conquests on the subcontinent. He managed to prevail until 1799, when an East India Company army besieged and captured Seringatpatam. Tipu was killed defending his city. 

The invading army divided up the plunder according to rank, as was the custom. Tipu's Tiger was sent to London as a curiosity. It was displayed at the Company's museum in Leadenhall Street for many years. It was acquired by the V&A in 1880. (Image: East India Co. Museum, Leadenhall Street. Tipu's Tiger can be see at far left).

Tipu's Tiger is a musical automaton. A hand-operated crank on the side of the tiger powers its movements and a bellows that produces sounds resembling a tiger's growl and the man's cries. The man's left arm moves up and down in a gesture of helplessness. A panel in the tiger's side conceals a small pipe organ on which tunes can be played. French advisers were present at Tipu's court at the time and may have aided in the automaton's construction.

V&A information on Tipu's Tiger: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/tipus-tiger

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