Mysore Palace, one of the great sights of India, impresses with its vastness and style, fusing Islamic, Indian, and even British Edwardian architecture. But its paintings are disappointing, partly because they are so poorly displayed. In contrast, the paintings at Daria Daulat Bagh, the summer palace of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, are exquisite.
Tipu Sultan was one of the great heroes of India, a man of learning, culture, reform, the arts, and war; he reminded me of Napoleon. He built an empire across Southern India and was initially successful in his battles with the British. Paintings in the palace, which was built in 1784, commemorate his victories. But in 1799 he—like Napoleon—lost a major battle to the Duke of Wellington, then simply Arthur Wellesley. Tipu died in the battle, and his body is in a mausoleum close to the palace.
Daria Daulat Bagh is like a tiny, run down Alhambra, only built of teak. It is surrounded by formal and beautiful gardens, and clearly there was once, as at the Alhambra, long thin pools of water that reflected the palace. Now they are empty or filled with the red fertile earth of Karnataka.
Every inch of the palace is decorated, with the paintings on the outside of the central “box” but protected from rain by a wide veranda and patterns and floral designs on the inside. The first picture you encounter is of battle and is perhaps 12 feet long by four feet high. The British with their redcoats, now faded, have formed a hollow square, and Tipu’s men supported by the French are attacking from either side. The soldiers are on horses, camels, and elephants; Tipu is on a horse “imperturbably smelling a rose” (as the blurb told us) and protected from the sun by an umbrella. “Imperturbably smelling a rose” is another reminder of Napoleon, who was always cool in battle. The whole picture made me think of the Bayeux Tapestry, and it serves the same function, commemorating a battle. Lin was taken by the colours and the patterns made by the soldiers and astutely observed that the battle scene, with all its complexity and chaos, looked like an abstract expressionist painting.
Above this battle painting was another battle painting only much darker but equally appealing. It was dominated by patterns of war elephants.
The back wall was decorated with paintings of flowers, and the wall facing East was covered in what were called portraits. It was a mass of squares and rectangles, each one telling a story. One showed the queen smoking a hookah, surrounded by her servants, and with carrier pigeons in the bottom right hand corner. These paintings done in the Mysore style were reminiscent of early Italian paintings telling the story of the lives of saints.
We weren’t allowed to take photographs, and we hoped for a beautifully illustrated book—or at least postcards. There was nothing. If this jewel was in a high-income country it would be well preserved and marketed; it would be expensive to get in, and there would be a mass of merchandise. The paintings are moderately well preserved, but much of the highly-decorated inside is rubbed away altogether by the passage of crowds of people. Some of it would have to be recreated, and restoring the inside would be a massive and very expensive job. I thought of Giotto’s Scrovegni chapel in Padua, which you must enter through an air lock, or the Venice in Peril campaign which saved many of the fine things in Venice. Italy can’t afford to keep up its treasures, and India is in a much worse position.
Imagination, energy, and dedication is needed to save this magnificent palace and its paintings. India doesn’t lack for people with such talents, but perhaps inevitably they have many human problems that must come first.