Tipu’s (or Tippoo’s) Tiger is a life-sized wooden mechanical organ made around 1793, depicting a tiger mauling a man in European clothing. When the crank is turned, a hidden mechanism causes the man’s arm to goes up and down, and plays his wails of agony along the growls of the tiger. Under a flap on the tiger’s body there is also a small pipe organ, which can play 18 notes.
The musical tiger automaton was made for Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India from 1782-1799. The Sultan posed a serious threat to British power in India, and was the self-proclaimed “Tiger of Mysore.” Not only is Tipu’s Tiger an object of morbid amusement, but it is also a metaphorical expression of his political ambitions to overcome the British position in the country. The design might have been inspired by the death of Briton Hugh Munro, who was killed by a tiger attack in the Bay of Bengal in 1792; his father, Sir Hector Munro, was a division commander during a battle which defeated Tipu Sultan’s father during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. More than just a grisly amusement, Tipu’s Tiger can be seen to represent symbolic retribution for this defeat, and the desire to triumph over the British more generally.
Tipu Sultan was killed as the British stormed his palace during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799, and the troops took the remarkable tiger among other valuables being looted. It was shipped to London in 1800, and moved between several collections before being placed permanently in the Victoria and Albert Museum (then known as the South Kensington Museum).
Tipu’s Tiger remains one of the most popular exhibits in the museum today, although it is now too fragile to operate. If you think about it, it’s pretty bizarre that one of the most popular exhibits in a British museum is a bloodthirsty tiger ripping into the neck of a European man, a symbol of hope that the British would be violently overcome. It’s either a really twisted form of nationalism, or just goes to show you how powerful our love of gruesome curiosities really is.
// Images and info via the terrific Wonders and Marvels, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. For further reading, check out Ivan Karp and Corinne A. Kratz’s “Reflections on the fate of Tippoo’s Tigers: Defining cultures through public display,” in Cultural Encounters: Representing Otherness (ed. Elizabeth Hallam and Brian V.Street).
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