Feedback About Us Archives Interviews Book Reviews Short Stories Poems Articles Home

ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2010



Abha Shukla Kaushik

Subaltern Historiography: Girish Karnad’s Dreams of Tipu Sultan

The term Postcolonial does not lend itself to any fixed definition. Postcolonial discourse, sharing the mood of postmodernism and questioning the continuation of hierarchies, does not merely suggest a reversal of the many binaries that exist in the contemporary world. Postcolonialism is basically a shift in perspective. It is difficult to isolate postcolonial literary theories as something that is purely literary in nature. The interdisciplinary nature of the theory forbids their purely literary use. The fact that the term lends itself to more than one interpretation allows its use in different contexts. It is an interdisciplinary field that sometimes encroaches upon what can be identified as cultural studies, feminist studies, dalit movement etc. Postcolonial investigation actually connects the literary with the sociological, the historical, the cultural, the political and the economic.

One of the early attempts to theorise postcoloniality is made by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin in their book ‘The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practices in Postcolonial Literatures’. Later Edward Said, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak emerged as the main voices.

The word postcolonial can be understood by drawing on both- the Commonwealth including the erstwhile colonies, and the more complex use of the word post as something which involves the past as well as the present. In the context of postmodernism and poststructuralism it is difficult to accept any post something as that which comes after something. Beginning of the post-independence phase in a country need not mean the beginning of postcolonial period. The many discussions regarding the term postcolonial make it clear to us that in the field of literary theories, this term is very rarely being used to denote something that comes after colonialism. With the dropping of the hyphen, the term postcolonialism is effectively being used as an always present tendency in any literature of subjugation marked by a systematic process of cultural domination through the imposition of power. The unhyphenated postcolonialism goes beyond the point of independence in the colonies which makes it possible to recognise differences. Two important trends that can be discerned are that it defies the linearity of history and accepts the notion of opposition as well as complicity among the colonised.  

Postcolonial discourse offers certain theoretical models which can be used in the discussion of literary texts which come either from the colonial period written by the colonised or the coloniser or from the postcolonial contemporary world. Different texts therefore, can be read differently by using the perspectives of writers from the former colonies. Postcolonial literary criticism has primarily suggested a way of reading differently the colonial texts by reading differently and hence challenging any accepted mode of reading is an important feature of postcolonial criticism. Postcolonial critics challenge the identities imposed by the western discourse on the third world.  Gayatri Spivak writes about the continued subalternisation of the so called third world literatures. Third world literature deals with the nation, with colonialism, with the trauma the colonial era has created in order to receive recognition in the international scene. In these literatures the desire to show one’s own culture as a very distinctive culture overshadows the concern for raising questions regarding the impact of colonialism on these cultures. Discussion of literatures from India especially of creative writing in English in India therefore feels obliged to make a reference to the Indianness of experience that is presented through such literary works so that most of the novels written in the first half of 20th century cannot but mention the freedom struggle as it was the social reality of the time. Later the focus shifted to discussing what was lost or gained by the colonial experience. 

There is a very strong tendency among the postcolonial writers to rework the texts belonging to the colonial period.  A re-reading of the different texts from the colonial era not only explores the various modes of representations of the colonised subjects but it also challenges the tendency to project coloniser as a unified subject superior to everyone else.

What needs to be stressed in any work dealing with colonisation and decolonisation is that the play of power in the colonised societies was very complex. The relationship between the coloniser and the colonised was never completely on the basis of oppressor – victim opposition but required at times the involvement of colonised at different levels. Actually there is a continued presence of power structures in what is common-sensically held as colonial and the subordinated. These power structures have a strange way of repeating themselves in different contexts with different coordinates and this is an important issue which can not be overlooked. Different situations of structural domination do exist. There is always a possibility of the victim of one kind of exploitation acting as the agent of oppression in another system of discrimination. These power structures are so linked with one another that mentioning the subaltern history of the margins of modernity without bearing in mind the complex structures of the post-colonised societies in the contemporary world will not be very helpful.

The centre at times invites selected members from the margin to be its inhabitant so that the rest of the margin can be marginalised. Besides, elite natives found the structure of the colonial institutions useful to strengthen their own positions.
Although most of the works on post colonialism have been produced in English, post colonialism as a theme is not anymore an area associated only with the British Empire or relevant only to English language. Economic exigencies and globalisation have resulted in a blurring of distinction between what was formerly identified as a colonial country and what is now seen as a powerful partner.

Locating the text in the social, historical cultural, temporal context therefore becomes important. Edward Said gives greater responsibility to a literary critic by asking him to read a text contrapuntally. Driving basically from the principles of comparative literary criticism, contrapuntal reading involves reading simultaneously from a different area or from a different period to throw more light on the interconnectedness of literature and history, of the centre and the margin. Subaltern historiography becomes a power tool in the hands of writers to do this. The historian in the subaltern historiography creates a place for the subaltern in history there by going against the norm of traditional history writing. The concept can be understood clearly if we look at one of the contemporary plays The Dreams of Tipu Sultan written by Girish Karnad, a well known name in Indian theatre.

The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1997) can be described as the long-awaited history play in which, after dealing with pre-colonial Indian history in two earlier works i.e. Tughlaq and Tale-danda. Karnad confronts British colonialism in its crucial early stages of military expansion. Karnad strongly felt that Tipu needed to be given his due as a major figure in Karnataka history, as a visionary, and a patriot and this play was written basically to revise his image. The ‘dreams’ of the plays title refer to a secret record of Tipu’s dreams maintained by him, found after his death. These ‘dream’ have been used like a metaphor by Karnad to show the ‘real’ man behind the image of the warrior, by looking into the inner aspirations of Tipu.

In many important respects Tipu Sultan follows the model of the history play established in Tughlaq and Tale-Danda. It draws upon a range of historical sources to present convincing portraits of the principal characters, but creates an imaginative plot and resonant dialogue to contain their experience. It deals with a controversial protagonist who can be characterized in radically opposite ways, depending on the observer’s viewpoint – as a heroic figure of anti-colonial resistance comparable to the Rani of Jhansi in one perspective, and a treacherous but fallible and even foolish adversary in another.

Hussain Ali Kirmani, among the play’s characters enables Karnad to reflect on the process of history-writing and the many conduits of history – oral and written, unofficial and official, objective and subjective, dominant and subaltern. The play also juxtaposes larger-than-life figures such as Tipu, Haider Ali, Nana Phadnavis, Lord Cornwallis, and Arthur and Richard Wellesley against a large cast of less prominent historical individuals like Kirmani, Tipu’s principal queen and sons, numerous courtiers, and military officials, as well as ordinary citizens and soldiers. The result is a historical reconstruction that succeeds as a dramatic fiction through its multiple of voices.

Tipu Sultan stands apart in Karnad’s works because as a play about colonialism it has to grapple with the inescapable psychodrama of East vs. West, Europe vs. the non European other, white vs. non-white, and colonizer vs. colonized. Avoiding any partisan parade of heroes and villains, Karnad creates ambitious and determined players in both camps who are sucked into the vortex of a major transitional moment in Indian history, politics, and culture. There are several important strategies at play in portrayal of Tipu Sultan that unfold simultaneously.

Karnad interlineates ‘textualized’ history with legend, lore, and memory because all these modes of transmission are germane to story of Tipu. The ruler’s fabled persona as the Tiger of Maysore thus figures prominently in the action, both as oral legend and as military reality that the English must contend with. Karnad also casts his protagonist in multiple and contradictory roles – as a beloved ruler, legendary warrior, loving father, and visionary dreamer, but also as the Machiavellian schemer who plots with the French against English, the defeated soldier who enters into humiliating treaties with the enemy, and the gullible commander who is eventually betrayed  by his own side. The perceptions of Tipu that have the greatest energy, however, are those with Brechtian-materialist overtones: they underscore Tipu’s excitement over the ‘new ideas’ of Europe, his understanding of political economy, his interest in the link between commerce and empire, and his desire for an up-to-date army in his analysis. The tragedy of  Tipu’s fall  is not only that it made way for a full-scale colonial takeover, but that it destroyed a visionary who shared the modernizing impulse of the European Enlightment, and could meet the English on their own terms much to their chagrin.

Karnad’s portrayal of English characters, is more in line with the conventional view of colonial conquest and the attendant cultural relations. Ethically, the main English characters in the play are rational, calculating, pragmatic, and ruthless, although their resentment of  Tipu’s apparent invincibility is also an aspect of what Homi Bhabha terms colonial ambivalence, while their racist contempt for all natives anticipates the unqualified colonialist denigration that Edward Said calls orientalism. Karnad’s principal thematic argument is a familiar one; the English succeeded in India not only because of their superior weapons and warfare, but because of their ability to play off members of the native ruling elite against each other. This accounts for the crucial quadrangulation between the Wellesleys, Tipu Sultan, the  Nizam of Hyderabad, and Nana Phadnavis, and the dynamics made interesting  from the perspective of the postcolonial present because it depicts the decentered nature of power relations in the absence of ‘national’ idea. Karnad’s Tipu is a proto-nationalist who resists as long as he can the Englishman’s schemes to rob his land , even as he understands that English ‘believe in the destiny of their race’ and are willing to die in  faraway places for their dream of England. At home, however, his appeals to a common faith fail to rally the Muslim Nizam to his side, and the instinctive hostility between Hindu and Muslim princes alienates him from the Marathas, although he issues a prophetic and purely political warning about England’s territorial ambitions. The pained scenes of Tipu’s peace treaties with the English emphasize that a complex, civilized, and prosperous culture was betrayed into subjection because of the pursuit of petty self-interest by key functionaries. In hindsight, the ‘traitorous’ collaborations between English and native armies across racial and cultural lines becomes the perfect prelude and antithesis to the invention of India-as-nation by nineteenth-and twentieth –century nationalists.

The play has scenes from the present which show Hussian Ali Kirmani’s attempts to write an ‘objective’ account of the dead Tipu for the English, and  then there are also intermittent scenes from the past which portray the sultan. This gives the play a powerfully elegiac quality. Kirmani as a participant-observer in Tipu’s tragedy, shows that the  matter of history consists not of facts (which concern the English) but also with the memories of fabled ruler that are fading all too quickly. The play begins and ends with memory: Kirmani and Colin Mackenzie serve as the chorus for a highly selective and reflexive history that unfolds cyclically, beginning with the day of Tipu’s last battle and returning to it via crucial stages in his slide towards defeat and death. In subtle moves, Karnad also reveals that the interests of the appointed historian are at variance in some respects with ‘actual’ history. Kirmani disclaims that Tipu ever sent an embassy to Malarctic, the French governor –general of Mauritius, whereas the very first scene with Tipu shows him talking about Malarctic’s role in arranging a royal delegation from Mysore to France. Tipu’s dreams-partly narrated and partly enacted are political allegories of his reign; some contain imaginary characters while others conjure up key historical figures like Lord Cornwallis and Haider Ali. The last dream is the most poignant because it is a fantasy of victory in the midst of defeat and death. The insertion of this dream text into history introduces a level of experience even more evanescent than memory, and makes The Dreams of Tipu Sultan  almost a poetic play. Karnad has raised many questions through the play  regarding the British Colonial policy of divide and rule; the short sightedness of Marathas, Tipu’s lack of killer instinct etc. but he leaves many loose ends never imposing his own conclusions so that the reader or viewer can draw his/her own.



Work Cited

Karnad, Girish.  Collected Plays: Taledanda, the Fire and the Rain, the Dreams of Tipu Sultan, Flowers and Images: Two Dramatic Monologues (Vol.II). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.