Ode to a recluse

Ode to a recluse



When I look at Tyeb Mehta’s painterly opus as a whole, my attention is particularly drawn to his series of ‘Kali’ and ‘Mahishasura’ images where beauty grapples with the grotesque, decontextualising and recontextualising the familiar images from Hindu mythology and iconography, and the resulting masterpieces reaching the level of Francisco da Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring One of His Children’,” observed writer, critic and artist Dilip Chitre (in a lecture delivered in Delhi last year). “His ‘Kali’ and ‘Mahishasura’ series contain an aspect of his work where his artistic agenda seems to have been to explore the meeting point of the sacred, the terrible, the violent, the grotesque and the beautiful...When one looks closely, the centre of each painting is essentially a figurative drawing. However, the flat coloured planes in the background function like a stage or a film set. The figure or figures or parts of human anatomy that perform on this set are always in suspended motion...”

Tyeb Mehta who passed away last week in Mumbai, had a connection with films since his birth in 1925. Although born in Gujarat, he was raised in Mumbai in an orthodox Shia Muslim family involved in film business. For a while the young Mehta worked as a film editor in a cinema laboratory and seemed destined to be part of the tinsel world. “I always wanted to be a filmmaker,” he reminisced years later. “I never thought I would become an artist. But at the time there was no FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune). So I joined the J J School of Art with the intention of doing art direction. Suddenly, I found myself being pulled into a whole new world of painting. My teacher Palsikar and contemporaries like Raza, Ram Kumar, Gaitonde and Husain drew me in. I realised this was a wonderful place to be. After that, I did not think of anything else.”

Mehta got his diploma in painting from J J School in 1952 and held his first solo exhibition in Mumbai in 1959; the same year he left for London where he lived and worked till 1964.

He visited the US on a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1968 where he encountered minimalist art with revelation. “When I saw my first original (Barnett Newman) for example, I had such an incredible emotional response to it. The canvas had no image but the way the paint had been applied, the way the scale had been worked out the whole area proportioned… there was something about it which is inexpressible.” Mehta was an artist-in-residence at Santiniketan in 1984-85 where “I could feel the presence of Kali everywhere.”

Although not a prolific artist like say, Husain or Souza, he painted with passion and commitment. Apart from several solo exhibitions his paintings featured in several international shows in France and United States.

Triggering the art boom
Mehta, who was influenced by the work of artists like Francis Bacon, Paul Klee and Neumann, became a household name in the artworld in 2002, when his painting ‘Celebration’ (Triptych/1995/Acrylic on canvas/240x510cm) was auctioned at Christies’ for Rs 1.5 crore; it was the highest sum for an Indian painting at an international auction.

The sale is largely credited to have triggered the subsequent great Indian art boom. (It is said that when Tyeb actually painted ‘Celebrations’ he did not have enough space in his apartment to view it; he had to take it to a neighbour’s house to see it properly!)
In May 2005, his painting ‘Kali’ (1997/acrylic on canvas/ 30 x 24 inches) sold for Rs 1 crore at Saffronart’s online auction. In September 2005, his ‘Mahishasura’ (oil on canvas/59 x 48 inch) was lapped up for $1.584 million (nearly Rs 7 crore) at Christie’s auction in New York; another record for a piece of contemporary Indian art.

In December 2005, his ‘Gesture’ was sold for Rs 3 crore at the Osian’s auction. This made it the highest price paid by an Indian for Indian contemporary art at an auction in India. Last year, an untitled oil painting by Mehta (1984/59 x 47 inch) was auctioned at Christies’ for Rs 8.20 crore!

Mehta, who was humble and soft-spoken led a frugal existence all his life; he remained aloof and unmoved by all the achievements and accolades. (Among others, he was the recipient of Kalidas Samman in 1988, the prestigious Dayawati Modi Foundation Award for Art, Culture and Education in 2005 and Padma Bhushan in 2007). Even when his works sold for record prices (incidentally, it was the collectors who made millions selling Mehta’s work and not the artist himself), and many galleries/collectors flocked at his doorstep, he continued to be unaffected. “I am not producing, I cannot churn out works.

I am not prolific. I create at my own pace.”

Pain of Partition
He was comfortable being a loner, ‘a bit of a recluse’, and a private person. “I live and work in isolation. My happiest moments are spent with myself and my art…I do not paint for money, or for what people think of me or of my work. I am not part of this hyped up ‘art world’, though yet of course, this changing world outside my window is reflected in my work. I paint of my times, but I am not of this time.” 

It is well known that Mehta was profoundly affected by the riots and genocide in the aftermath of the Partition. Violence, brutality, pain and suffering were to be at the core of his art ever since he saw a man being massacred on the streets of Mumbai during Partition. “That violence gave me the clue about the emotion I want to paint. That violence has stuck in my mind.”

Apart from ‘Mahishasura’ and ‘Kali’ series, among Mehta’s most enduring images were of the falling man and the trussed bull. “My ‘Trussed Bull’ series was born out of the haunting echoes of the slaughterhouse next to my house. It made me turn vegetarian and it also gave me my imagery… The trussed bull and the fallen figure in my painting are corollaries, metaphors for the violence I experienced during Partition.”

Critics and historians have observed how from the beginning of his career, Mehta used a handful of images, and repeatedly worked on them in different contexts, at different times. “The content of my work remains the same; the representation has changed over the years…An artist comes to terms with certain images. He arrives at certain conventions by a process of reduction.”

In his final years, Mehta had lost vision in one eye, had partial vision in the other, and could reach his canvases by walker. After successive heart attacks and three throat operations, Mehta slowed down, but refused to give up. “When you are young, you try to understand the world. As you grow old, you try to understand yourself. Your work then becomes the essence of these efforts.” 

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