Place of Origin: BURMA OR INDIA
Date: 19th Century
Overall: 830mm x 320mm (32 ½ x 12 ½ inches)
Reference: 830mm x 320mm
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact place that this striking painted tiger was made, but strong cases can be made for two countries of origin in particular – Burma and India.
If it is of Burmese manufacture, the fearsome tiger may have perhaps been intended to represent an attendant creature, or the mount of the nat (spirit) Maung Po Tu. In his human existence, he was a tea trader during the reign of King Minkhaung of Ava (Innwa) and was killed by a tiger during a journey to Shan state. For a figure of the Maung Po Tu nat riding a tiger, see plate 74 in Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Burmese Crafts Past and Present, O.U.P., New York, 1994.
The argument for an India origin, on the other hand, is based partly on a famous comparand preserved at the V&A, Tipu’s Tiger, “an almost life-sized wooden semi-automaton, [which] mauls a European soldier lying on his back.” An organ hidden within the body of this tiger is operated using a handle, and not only moves the man’s arm but also produces a sound which is intended to recreate the soldier’s dying moan. Tipu Sultan’s prolific use of the tiger is well documented in other objects such as a gold tiger’s head from the Royal Collection Trust (RCIN 67212): “Although the tiger was an ancient symbol of kingship in India, Tipu made it his own; he declared that it was ‘better to live a single day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.’” This tradition of decoration continued long after Tipu’s time, as the region of manufacture of Tipu’s Tiger “was, and still is, famous for the painted wooden toys that were sent to major international exhibitions in the mid-nineteenth [century], though the origins of the industry are as obscure as the creation of Tipu’s tiger.”
In any case, the tiger’s appearance is undeniably remarkable. Well-preserved and painted mainly in bright orange, its stripes are stylised in strips of black and pale red paint which each curve at either end. The tiger’s details are carved out with considerable care and the eyes are painted with central white dots on an intimidating black ground enclosed within a pale-red painted circle, slender eyelashes emanating out. Bristling whiskers flow from the top of the tiger’s fierce grin which is filled with white-painted teeth, its sharp canines carved so as to appear distinct from the others. The tiger’s strong legs and musculature can also be seen in the carving, adding to the fearful aspect of this sculpture, as if it were ready to strike at prey.
 Susan Stronge, Tipu’s Tigers, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2009, p. 41.