• The Dreams of Tipu Sultan

    Girish Karnad

    November 27, 2019

    On October 30th, Karnataka chief minister and BJP leader BS Yediyurappa declared that the government will take some significant measures across the state to alter the contents of school textbooks that appeared to “glorify Tipu Sultan”, one of the last independent rulers of pre-colonial India. This is to be recognised as part of Hindutva’s agenda to both Islamisise and vilify this historical figure. Journalist Parvathi Menon writes, “The state BJP is hamstrung by an interfering and controlling central command in matters of routine politics and governance, and therefore turns particularly zealous in matters where it can show itself as an independent and aggressive force for Hindutva, as in the rewriting of textbooks.”

    Set in 18th century Mysore, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan – a play on the tragic downfall of the ruler – is based on a personal diary maintained in secret by him and discovered under his bedchamber, post his death in 1799. Written by dramatist Girish Karnad (1938-2019), the play is an attempt to “rediscover” Tipu, and offers a counterview to imperialist-Orientalist and contemporary right-wing narratives about him, that have often presented the ruler as a cruel tyrant and a mindless proponent of religious fundamentalism.

    "There is a historical figure in “The Dreams of Tipu Sultan”, a king, a warrior. But Karnad finds a key to go beyond mere historical record. He uses the fact of Tipu having maintained a diary of his dreams like a key, so we acquire a deeper understanding of Tipu the man,” said writer Githa Hariharan to the Indian Cultural Forum. “Tipu’s political vision included his central goal of ousting the British; but it was also a vision enriched by both idealism and a clear-eyed understanding of commerce; as well as a passion for science and technology. There is another point of resonance the play has for us today, beyond the crude Hindutva pretence that anyone Muslim cannot have played an important role in Indian history. Tipu’s biggest dream is to defeat the British plunderer and coloniser. But to do this, he needs a “united opposition”, exactly as we need today to beat back the Hindu supremacists who are tearing India apart,” she added.

    The play begins with the death of the ruler and starts off with a conversation between Tipu's court historian Hussain Ali Kirmani and colonial historian Colin Mackenzie, about the difficulty in maintaining "objectivity" when writing Tipu's history. Theatre person and academic A Mangai said, “The fact that Karnad chose to write this play based on Tipu for the 50th Anniversary of Indian Independence reveals a visionary insight. It is an effort to historically assert that India is made of many peoples and diverse religions. Karnad saw Tipu as a devoted patriot and anti-colonial leader. And during his lifetime faced controversies over his adoration of Tipu. We, now, more than ever, need to remind ourselves of shared histories. The play does it most effectively”.

    The following is an excerpt from Karnad’s play "The Dreams of Tipu Sultan".

    (Darkness swallows them up. When lights come on we are in the Maratha camp. Hari Pant Phadke is waiting for Tipu Sultan.)

    HARI PANT: Welcome, Tipu Sultan Khan Saheb. Welcome to the Maratha camp. This is a most pleasant surprise —

    TIPU: It’s a custom in our land to bid goodbye to guests personally before they leave.

    HARI PANT: Even when the guest was unwelcome?

    TIPU: I did not make you unwelcome. We met last seven years ago and we parted as friends. We swore there would be everlasting peace between us. I still do not know what changed the situation. But I mustn’t be impolite to my guest. I hope your family is well.

    HARI PANT: Yes, thank you. And yours?

    (An embarrassed pause as Hari Pant realizes his faux pas.)

    I want to assure you, Khan Sahib, that we Marathas were not party to that deal—about taking your children hostage. We are extremely disturbed by it.

    TIPU: You were ‘not party’. What does that mean, Hari Pant? You disagreed with it?

    HARI PANT: Yes, we did.

    TIPU: And you were overruled?

    HARI PANT: The Nizam stood by the English. We Marathas were outvoted.

    TIPU: Hari Pant, the English were fleeing in despair—I had driven them back—when you came to their aid at Melukote. Without your enormous bazaar of supplies, half their army would have been wiped out, and the other half stumbling towards Madras by now. You are the true victors of this war. Yet you let the English dictate the terms!

    HARI PANT: The English are our allies. After all, you have the French working for you. You have sought French friendship.

    TIPU: Friendship, yes! Working for me! Not dictating to me. You have seen the new demands made by the English? I’ve just received them.

    HARI PANT (evasive): I’ve had no occasion to doubt the integrity of the English. Cornwallis deals firmly but fairly.

    TIPU: I am to cede half my kingdom adjacent to your territories—

    HARI PANT: I know that. That was part of the initial agreement between us.

    TIPU: And you know what part of my lands they are demanding? The province of Kodagu.

    (Pause.)

    You’re silent. To which possession of the English is Kodagu adjacent? Will you tell Cornwallis that this wasn’t the geography you had in mind when you discussed the terms of the treaty? You won’t. For this is a convenient geography of his own invention, and you go along.

    HARI PANT: Cornwallis has been honest with us. That’s what counts. We have a third share of our joint conquests—

    TIPU (hoots with laughter): You have what? Hari Pant, how can you say that without blushing? The share that you’ve been given is what my father had won from you Marathas forty years ago. What you’ve got is only a restitution of your earlier possessions. And in return you have given the English new territories: Salem, Dindigul, the Malabar coast with its coconuts and pepper and its magnificent ports. You are back where you were while the English now have the entire coastline of India. And remember, they are a sea-faring power. Mine is a landlocked kingdom, so I thirst for the sea, for today the sea is the key to power, to prosperity. You have the whole of the western coast. And instead of keeping the English out, you’ve permitted the shark into your waters and are trying to swim along with it.

    HARI PANT: We only want what’s ours—

    TIPU: And how long will it remain yours? Where’s the Raja of Tiruvidankoor in whose honour the English mounted this campaign? Thrown on the dung heap.

    HARI PANT (lamely): He is no concern of ours.

    TIPU: I would have torn this treaty and fl ung it in your faces and died in the breach sooner than consent to the cession of Kodagu. But they have my children! My sons! I asked for time to consider these preposterous terms and you know what their response has been? Instead of returning my children and continuing the battle, they have taken away their Mysore escort—and imprisoned my sons! Made them prisoners of war! How does that strike you, brave leader of the Marathas? Prisoners of war, aged seven and eight! So I’ll capitulate—I’ll give them what they want. Goodbye, Hari Pant. You are a wise man. And I hope you have given thought to why, when the English could have decimated me, they have left me with my kingdom.

    HARI PANT: Khan Saheb, we insisted that your status was not to be touched—

    TIPU: Rubbish. Cornwallis has saved me because without me in south India, you Marathas would become too powerful. You are being carefully contained. No, don’t reply. And please don’t come out of the tent to see me off. I shall find my way. This is still my land. Only one word of caution, Hari Pant. Make sure it’s not your children next time.

    (Walks out.)
    (Mackenzie and Kirmani.)

    MACKENZIE: The defeat of Tipu was a personal triumph for Lord Cornwallis. The stigma of York Town was washed off. The Crown conferred on him the title of ‘Marquis’. In a fit of absent-mindedness, the Parliament forgot all about Pitt’s India Act.

    KIRMANI: It was two years before Tipu’s sons were restored to him. When they were reunited, the boys laid their heads on their father’s feet and he, leaning forward, touched them on their necks. No words were spoken.

    MACKENZIE: Lord Cornwallis was succeeded by Sir John Shore as the Governor General. Seven years of peace ensued. And then came Richard Wellesley, Second Earl of Mornington—an ambitious young man of thirty-eight.

    (1798. Calcutta. Richard Wellesley, Earl of Mornington, the Governor General of India, with his younger brother Arthur Wellesley, a junior colonel in the Indian army and Colonel William Kirkpatrick.)

    MORNINGTON: Before my departure for India, the Board of Control made it clear to me that the East India Company was not to acquire any more territory in India. The Prime Minister, Mr Pitt, was emphatic on that score.

    KIRK: Yes, Your Lordship.

    MORNINGTON: I’ve been on the Board myself for the last four years and have had time to reflect on what would be the best course of action for us to take.

    KIRK: Yes, Your Lordship.

    MORNINGTON: It seems to me self-evident that we have to liquidate Tipu.

    (Kirkpatrick looks up startled, then turns to gauge Arthur Wellesley’s reaction. Arthur is impassive.)

    KIRK: But, Your Lordship, Sir John—

    MORNINGTON: My saintly predecessor was an evangelical Christian. If you kicked him on his right buttock, he would probably turn his left. He didn’t know how to take offence.

    WELLESLEY (laughs): I gather he preferred Jortin’s Sermons to official dispatches.

    MORNINGTON: He should have taken offence when Tipu sent a delegation to Napoleon inviting him to invade India. This flirtation with our enemy should not have been tolerated.

    KIRK: But now, after the Battle of Nile, that’s surely not a cause for concern.

    MORNINGTON: In fact, Tipu should have been got rid of after the last Mysore war by Cornwallis. But he didn’t. And since then Tipu has grown in power and prestige, which is more than can be said of our dear effete allies. We must hold Cornwallis guilty of grave lapse of judgement and Sir John of deliberate connivance. It’s my duty as the new Governor General of India to set things right.

    KIRK: Do you think Tipu will want to create trouble, Your Lordship? Madras doesn’t think so.

    MORNINGTON: Tipu is building a trading empire on the European model and succeeding eminently. We have driven the French and Dutch out of India, contained the Portuguese. Is there any reason why we should tolerate an upstart native? The longer the peace, the stronger will Tipu become.

    KIRK: But, Your Lordship, Madras is opposed to any move against Tipu—

    MORNINGTON: Kirkpatrick, I will not allow a bunch of incompetent hacks, cowering in fear, to arrogate to themselves the power of governing the empire committed to my care. I’ll not let them thwart me. Make that absolutely clear to Madras.

    KIRK: Yes, Your Lordship.

    MORNINGTON: Good. Now let’s start at the beginning and ponder the opening move. Has Tipu had anything to do with the French recently?

    (Pause. Kirkpatrick doesn’t know what to say.)

    No dealings with Pondicherry? Chandernagore?

    WELLESLEY: What about Mauritius? More romantic, I’d say. Strategically located. The right scale.

    MORNINGTON: Anything there? KIRK: We have information that some forty Frenchmen from Mauritius came to Mysore last year in search of employment—

    MORNINGTON: They did? Excellent. So Tipu sends a secret mission to the French Governor of Mauritius. What’s his name?

    KIRK (Scottish pronunciation): Malarctic, sir.

    MORNINGTON: Quite! (French pronunciation.) Malarctic—asking for a dispatch of ten thousand French and twenty thousand African troops. And Malarctic puts up a proclamation asking for volunteers—

    KIRK (guarded): Not if the mission were secret, surely?

    (Wellesley smiles.)

    MORNINGTON: No need for subtlety. Let’s take the shortest route.
    One of our newspapers in Calcutta gets hold of a copy and publishes it—

    KIRK: I shall contact a local editor, Your Lordship—

    WELLESLEY: Is that necessary? I’m sure the Board of Control will accept Richard’s word for it.

    (Kirkpatrick is suitably snubbed.)

    MORNINGTON: Of course, we shan’t believe the report initially. We want Tipu’s friendship. It gives us time to prepare.

    KIRK: But won’t Tipu deny such an allegation, Your Lordship?

    (Long silence.)

    I’m sorry, but protocol would seem to demand we give him an opportunity to recant or make amends or at least explain himself.

    MORNINGTON: Tipu has had peaceful relations with us for the last seven years, which means he will not expect us to declare war. He is not in a state of preparedness. In fact, he’s quite likely to be absorbed in silkworms and sandalwood forests. Shall we then give him adequate warning, William, and face a long-drawn-out, costly war?

    WELLESLEY: We know the speed with which he can mobilize.

    KIRK (cowed): I understand.

    MORNINGTON: I shall of course write to Tipu seeking an explanation. But General Harris will despatch the letter only after he and General Stuart have entered the Mysore territory. Tell the Nizam and the Marathas we shall expect their presence, though it scarcely matters either way. As for our Governor in Madras, he gets confused by long messages. So keep our instructions to him brief: Tipu must go.


    Girish Karnad, World Theatre Ambassador of the International Theatre Institute, Paris (ITI), was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Apart from his work in theatre, he has directed and acted in films. He has served as Director, Film and Television Institute of India; Chairman, Sangeet Natak Akademi (the National Academy of the Performing Arts); and Director, The Nehru Centre, London. He was Visiting Professor and Playwright-in-Residence at the University of Chicago.The Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis in the US and the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester in the UK, have been among the theatres that commissioned him to write for them. He has been honoured with the Padma Bhushan and was conferred the prestigious Jnanpith Award.

    This is an excerpt from the play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan written by Girish Karnad and published by Oxford University Press, India. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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