Tyeb Mehta: Defining the power of the lone figure 

Impactful portrayals of figures of the ordinary man or goddess Kali, drawing from memory, myth and reality, have made Tyeb Mehta one of the leading names in the history of Indian modernism

The first thing that hits you about Tyeb Mehta’s canvases is the sense of movement and colour. Each image — be it the Rickshaw Puller or Kali — seems dynamic, almost as if the artist has frozen the figures during an act. And while doing so, he has exposed both the inner and outer selves of the depicted beings. The abstracted figures in Mehta’s works have come to stand as embodiments of human suffering, and this sense of poignancy has resonated with collectors over the years. 

In the past decade, his canvases have headlined auctions in India and abroad. At a Christie’s sale in 2002, his Celebration created a record for the highest price for an Indian painting. During the auction house’s debut sale in India in 2013, Mehta’s Mahishasura fetched Rs 17 crore, a significant increase from its pre-sale estimate of Rs 7.5-9 crore. 

Tyeb Mehta’s CONFIDANT, COURTESY: Christie’s from the South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art- New York Asian Art Week March 2021

2005 proved to be a landmark year for the artist. His Gesture broke his previous record, when it sold for Rs 31 million at an Osian auction. And in the summer of 2017, his Untitled (Woman on Rickshaw) sold for a staggering Rs 22.9 crore at Christie’s annual sale, becoming the most expensive work of South Asian Art sold globally that year. “A hitherto unexposed work being seen outside its home in Delhi for the first time, and its vividly coloured palette (not necessarily a plus) did lend it an edge,” wrote Arvind Rajamohan, CEO, Artery India — an art intelligence — firm, in an article about whether the canvas merited this kind of price or not. 

In the same year, the modern master’s The Falling Figure shone at Saffronart’s summer online auction for the duality that it conveyed— the disorientation of the fragmented figure falling into an abyss. “…In the simple act of falling, Tyeb takes us on into a metaphysical riddle. The falling is vertiginous; and metaphorically expresses man’s freedom in the very act of infinite questing,” wrote poet Dilip Chitre about the series in Ideas Images Exchanges. 

And then, in 2018, his monumental work, Kali fetched around Rs 26 crore (inclusive of buyer’s premium) at Saffronart’s sale. In the same year, Sotheby’s chose his Durga Mahisasura Mardini to headline its debut sale in India. The appeal of Mehta’s works remains undiminished, and continues to occupy the pride of place at auctions even now. For instance, in March 2021, when Christie’s announced the Asian Art Week in New York, the artist’s Confidant, painted in 1962, shared space with many other significant masterpieces. 

Tyeb Mehta’s Kali bought online became the fifth most expensive painting sold at an auction in 2018. Courtesy: Saffronart

But the numbers aside, what is it that makes his works so relevant through time? Perhaps, that struggle for survival that he depicts so beautifully in his canvases touches a chord within all of us. His protagonists, be it the ordinary man or mythological beings, have always portrayed very real emotions. There are traces of violence and conflict, and yet there is harmony in the way Mehta treats the visual, through tones and lines. 

The sense of motion comes, perhaps, from his work with the moving image. Born in Kapadvanj, Gujarat, Mehta spent most of his working life in Mumbai. Initially, he worked as a film editor at a lab in Mumbai’s Famous Studios. The pre-Partition riots made it difficult to travel and he enrolled at the J.J. School of Arts. In the process, he met MF Husain and Krishen Khanna, becoming associated with the Progressive Artists Group. “…we learned and tried to understand paintings through each other.  Gradually I realised that painting offered a world of expression, all its own. I forgot about films and became obsessed with learning what painting was all about,” Mehta is quoted in Vadehra Art Gallery’s exhibition catalogue of 1996. Bombay, at that time, was a melting pot of culture, and that had a clear effect on him as well. Discourses on literature and art with Akbar Padamsee’s elder brother, Nurrudin, and friendships with Ebrahim Alkazi, impacted his way of thinking. 

After this, he left for London in 1959. During his stay in the city till 1964, he was deeply influenced by the expressionist works of Francis Bacon. However, later, when he went to New York on the John D Rockefeller Fund, his works became known for minimalism. Then on, Mehta developed a signature style of using flat plans of colour and a diagonal division. “…both devices that existed in the Indian miniature tradition. Common themes of his work were trussed bulls, the rickshaw puller, from here he moved to the Diagonal Series, which he created through the 1970s, after accidentally discovered in 1969, when in a moment of creative frustration he flung a black streak across his canvas. Mehta’s preoccupation with formalist means of expression have led to matt surfaces, broken with diagonals and imagery, while expressing a deep anguish is specifically painterly,” reads Mehta’s profile on the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation website.

Provenance, Tyeb Mehta, Gallery Chemould, Bombay, 1976, Christie’s, London, October 5, 1999 (lot 74)
Eminent private collector, New Jersey, USA, 2018, Private collection, New Delhi

The sense of pathos and human existentialism that informs Mehta’s work comes from the experience of the violence during the Partition. He is believed to have witnessed someone falling to their death during the 1947 riots, and that hugely influenced his Falling Figures series. Some of the works in the series had deep personal layers too. A work from Falling Figures, which was part of the 2017 Saffronart auction, had been gifted by Mehta to his daughter, Himani Mehta Dehlvi, as a wedding present.  “Over three decades of watching this painting everyday, one realises that the painting continues to reveal a journey, not just of Tyeb Mehta’s life, but mine as well. This particular Falling Figure has come to be synonymous with the journey of the struggle that the family witnessed, the searing anguish and, also, a deep empathy to behold what is so uniquely humane and to seek freedom,” she had stated in a media interview. 

To her, this work also evoked memories of Mehta’s process, and his “perseverance to achieve the form”, which best expressed his ideas. “There are memories of seeing him live with an idea for days, weeks and months, before he would pick up the brush. My father’s response to an event was never instant. Instead, it would be to reflect long and hard to locate the work in an enduring content,” Dehlvi had said in the interview. “I guess that is probably the reason that I saw a sense of brooding in many of his works.”

In a conversation published in Journeys: Four Generations of Indian Artists in Their Own Words, (Oxford University Press, 2011) and now available on the Critical Collective website, Mehta stated that his images are very carefully chosen. For instance, the first image that he painted with a great deal of thought was that of a trussed bull. “Prior to that I painted the rickshaw puller — these are the two images that really appealed to me in those days. Even now they do -– I keep painting them. I relate to these images. For me the trussed bull is a compulsive image” He further added that to a painter, the kind of images he chooses, amongst many others available to him, depends on the kind of person he is and how he can come to terms with it. “…as a phenomenologist would say how he puts “essence into existence”, how he transforms an ordinary image of an apple into a poetic one,”  he said. 

Mehta’s depiction of Kali is, perhaps, one of the best-known of the goddess. According to a note by Saffronart, over his entire artistic career, Mehta painted only three standing Kali figures between 1988 and 1989—of which the Kali on offer (in 2018)  was the largest, at 67 x 54 inches—and only a few smaller format Kali heads in later years. In his past interviews, Mehta had said that he had always wanted to paint a mother goddess. And during his time at Santiniketan, he could feel the presence of Kali everywhere. The 1980s were a tumultuous time for him, with Mehta having suffered from a heart attack. The doctor had asked him to rest, but he decided to go to Santiniketan as an artist-in-residence. 

“Like Perseus and Gorgon, I thought of that recreation of Medusa’s blood giving rise to a winged horse Pegasus, the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite. Like that I always believed that Kali’s myth also tells us something,” said Mehta in an earlier interview with writer-curator Uma Nair. “Then there was a Santhal woman whom I found so captivating. It was in a place, Charak, this lady in a make-believe temple almost nude, poured some water near the tree trunk. I was so struck by her presence, I carried that presence. It still remains with me…. It was her role in the drama, something implicit in her image which could not be explained in some way that remained in some part of my inner memory.”  

Tyeb Mehta, Situation, 1963, Oil on board, 46.75 x 71 in. Image courtesy of AstaGuru from its Modern Indian Art Online Auction, July 15-16, 2020

It is these impactful portrayals, drawing from memory, myth and reality that made Mehta one of the leading figures in the history of Indian modernism. His works linger on in your conscience, sometimes as a feeling of disquiet or of sadness. Ranjit Hoskote put the impact of a Tyeb Mehta work on the viewer beautifully in Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, 2005: “A primary experience of shock resonates at the core of Tyeb Mehta’s figuration.  It is difficult to come away from one of his paintings without sensing a disquiet that is barely held in check by the seam of the line; an anguish bursts against the skin of the pigment.  Nothing can completely still this primary experience of shock…  Standing before these often monumental-scale frames we bear helpless witness to the predicaments into which the artist knits his singular, isolated protagonists.”

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