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Plays for Our Times

Sudhanva Deshpande

By Girish Karnad
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. vi 125, Rs. 195.00


In the depressing eighteenth century, as one Indian ruler after another capitulated before the might of British guns and gold, the figure of Tipu Sultan stands out as a shining exception. He recognized that the British were not one among many regional potentates, aspiring to petty kingdoms, indulging in periodic bouts of looting and blood-letting, though on that front too they were second to none. He saw that they were masters of deception and untruth, of pitting one opponent against another, and of making – and breaking – alliances. But Tipu also recognized that in spite of their rapacity and greed, they were a force of the future, a modern empire backed by technology and trade.   Tipu sought to counter the British by creating a modern state. He emphasized trade, new crafts, modern military techniques, and an efficient revenue system. He sought to befriend the French. He tried to woo the Marathas, but they proved myopic. Like his father, Tipu was a fierce fighter. In fact, he was the only Indian prince to die in the battlefield, fighting the British. It is not surprising, therefore, that the British regarded him as a villain, and in their accounts he appears a tyrant and a despot.   Tipu’s tragedy was that he lived in the cusp between eras when the old order was rotting but was not yet dead, and the new order could be seen as a glimmer on the horizon, but was yet to be born. A century or so earlier, and he would have been a great emperor; a century or so later, he would have led the Indian renaissance and the anti-colonial struggle.   But Tipu’s tragedy is not simply that he was born in the wrong century. It appears that he was born in the wrong religion as well. In 1999, as the bi-centenary of his heroic death was being observed in Karnataka, forces of the Hindu Right launched a vicious campaign against him. In fact, not only did the Hindu Right seek to malign his memory, denigrate his achievements and belittle his contribution to Indian history, they also tried to physically disrupt the celebrations. In Anekal, for instance, VHP-Bajrang Dal goons physically attacked the theatre group Samudaya, which was doing an anti-communal play as part of the Tipu bicentenary. There was furore in the Kannada cultural circles at this attack, and within a day or so of the attack, ...

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