A tiger in the castle

March 15, 2024 1 Comment

Powis Castle is quite a frightening place.  A huge lump of sandstone glowering down on the Severn valley from its ridge, it was always intended to be intimidating, when it was first built by Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, a Welsh ally of the Normans, and later on when it was controlled by the powerful Herbert family.  Nowadays it’s in the care of the National Trust, but it still feels like a distant and alien presence, with its high walls, formal gardens and peacocks.

Once the Clive family got to control the Castle, by marriage to one of the Herberts in 1785, another layer of oppression was added.  Edward Clive, the new owner, was the son of Robert Clive, whose violence, rapacity and self-enrichment in India, where he led the private army of the East India Company, was thought excessive even by the lax standards of his contemporaries.  Edward also spent time in India, as Governor of Madras.

Tīpū Sultān’s tent

This Indian connection explains the thousand or so objects from India that today line the museum of Powis Castle: weapons and armour, statues, silver and gold ornaments and much more.  Some were probably bought or gifted, but there’s little doubt that most were looted, especially after the military defeat and death of Tīpū Sultān in 1799, for which Edward Clive was mainly responsible.  Two of the most impressive are a palanquin or travelling couch that belonged to Siraj ud-Daulah, the ruler of Bengal until he was overthrown by Robert Clive, and an intricately made tent made of painted cotton chintz that accompanied Tīpū Sultān when he visited his lands. 

The word ‘loot’ was tailor-made to describe all this pillage: it derives from a Hindi term.   The Earls of Powis still own at least part of the Clive collection, and benefit from it.  In 2014 they sold items from it and raised £4.1m for the family.

Until recently the National Trust exhibited the Indian collections in the ‘Clive Museum’ with little reference to the manner in which they arrived at Powis Castle, or to the marauding activities of the East India Company.  But times changed, and the Trust gradually became more aware of the need to set the Castle and the Museum in the context of colonial power.  Recently it’s given a ‘residency’ to the Swansea artist Daniel Trivedy.  The connection has allowed him to explore the complex connections between Britain, Wales and India, between the Clive dynasty and the Indian rulers it supplanted, and between colonialism and today’s inequalities and injustices.

His work, entitled ‘The Tiger in the Castle’, and supported by Artes Mundi as well as the National Trust, was launched at an event in the Powis Castle Museum on 8 March.  The main element is a double-screen film of clips featuring a tiger loose in the Castle.  Or rather, Daniel dressed in a theatrical tiger costume.

The tiger is a figure with multiple references.  To early Indians tigers were an essential part of their world.  A section of the Mahabharata instructs, ‘Do not cut down that forest with its tigers! Let not the tigers be driven from that forest! There can be no forest without tigers, and no tigers without a forest’.  Tīpū Sultān was known as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, and he adopted the tiger as his personal symbol.  Just before he was killed he was offered a way of escape, but he refused, saying, according to tradition, ‘better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.’  One of the centrepieces of the Museum is a golden tiger head, studded with jewels, that was removed from Tīpū Sultān’s throne after his defeat.

To the British, though, a tiger was a far from heroic creature.  It embodied more dubious and sinister qualities: stealth, deviousness and viciousness.  Shere Khan, you’ll remember, is the anti-hero of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle book, famous for his pride and murderousness.  (As Daniel observes, the British lion is equally brave, but by contrast is noble and grand.)  This hostility later translated into the practice of slaughtering India’s tiger population.  I remember as a child reading Man-eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett, a book exclusively and proudly concerned with killing tigers.  Today fewer than 4,000 tigers survive in the wild in India.  It’s impossible to ignore all this when you enter the Museum, because there on the wall nearby hangs the skin of a tiger – once a proud trophy of a kill, now a sad and incomprehensible obscenity.

In the film scenes, we see Daniel’s tiger wandering about the Castle, mingling with the tourists and examining the exhibits.  He’s far from the sinister and aggressive beast of English mythology.  Instead, he pads slowly through the rooms, occasionally swishing his hair whisk across his back.  He peers at the Indian artefacts with a calm curiosity.  He tries to avoid frightening the other visitors.  He lies back in a bath, his head resting on his hands.  The Clives and their descendants have been expelled, and, for a short time, one of those they silenced takes possession of their castle – and feels comfortable in its surroundings.

A lesser artist, especially one of Indian heritage like Daniel, might have chosen a more confrontational approach to the Powis Castle collection and its colonial connections.  Daniel’s aim, though isn’t to attack and denounce, but to encourage visitors to learn and to think.  This is specially important because the British Empire is hardly taught in schools in the UK, and children can easily grow up with little knowledge of a history that continues to have a profound effect on us today.  Replacing the transmission of uninformed stereotypes with discovery and enlightenment is Daniel’s aim. 

Daniel’s tiger has two faces: he’s a symbol of resistance to the traditional imperial narrative, but he’s also a key, a humorous and curious key, to unlocking thought about conquest, appropriation and the interpretation of the objects of empire – and by-passing the culture wars of empire to arrive at more considered views.

Conceptual art lives or dies according to the strengths of its concepts.  Daniel Trivedy is a subtle thinker, with a gift for articulating his ideas in quiet but effective ways.  Sometimes I think he’s too quiet.  His ambition to engage as many people as possible in his work is a challenging one.  Powis Castle is a relatively remote site, geographically and mentally –  and the National Trust charges a family £37.50 per visit.  Maybe some loans of objects to other (free) venues would be possible – or even a television programme?

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  1. Brilliant review Andrew, really informative and interesting. I agree about a TV programme – much more discouse around the subject is needed. Hope to visit the castle soon and see Daniel’s work.

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