Canvas as a battlefield

Tyeb Mehta excelled in rendering radical and modernistic versions of mythical characters such as Kali and Mahishasura, writes Giridhar Khasnis

On September 21, 2005, Tyeb Mehta’s painting Mahishasura (1997) was auctioned for a record-breaking sum of $1.58 million at Christie’s New York. The final bid far exceeded the estimate of $600,000-$800,000 set by the auctioneer for the work. It was also the first time that a piece of contemporary Indian art had crossed the million-dollar mark. Observers believe that the sale paved the way for the subsequent Indian art boom.
The event expectedly triggered all round celebration. In fact, Celebration (1995) was the title of Mehta’s triptych painting which had sold at Christie’s for US$300,000 in 2002, a record at that time. The hype which surrounded such pathbreaking auctions, however, made little or no impact on the artist. Clearly disinterested in market dynamics and art world politics, Mehta was reluctant to even speak about his works, let alone promote them.

Mehta passed away 10 years ago on July 2, 2009, at the age of 84. His burial in Mumbai’s Charni Road qabaristan was a low-key affair attended by a small group of people. While his friends, admirers and fellow artists mourned his death, local and international media covered his demise extensively. In an obituary note, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter hailed the Mumbai artist as the leading light of India’s first post-colonial generation of Modernist painters. He also stressed that the frail, soft-spoken painter was dismissive of the association of art with money. “Mehta lived with his wife, Sakina, in a small walk-up apartment in a Mumbai suburb,” wrote Cotter (July 4, 2009 / NY Times). “He had spent a lifetime living lean and would continue to. He made nothing from the auctions; the paintings sold had long been out of his hands. He was also not the kind of artist who could make hay of a sudden career spurt by turning out new work fast. He was a slow, meticulous painter and a ruthless self-editor who destroyed many more pictures than he ever let out of the studio. He didn’t take commissions, and was reluctant to produce anything on demand. Independence and solitude were, for him, beyond price.”

Twilight years

Sadly, in his twilight years, Mehta was tormented by a series of health problems, including successive heart attacks and throat operations. He also lost vision in one eye, and sustained partial vision in the other. To his credit, he faced them all courageously and never stopped painting. “Age does not hamper creativity,” he said. Mehta’s wife recalled how the artist sought to draw and paint even in his hospital bed. Curiously, Mehta’s first love was filmmaking and not painting. “I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I never thought I would become an artist. But at the time, there was no FTII (Film and Television Institute of India at
Pune). So I joined the J J School of Art with the intention of doing art direction.” He passed out of J J School in 1952, and left for London in 1959.

It was in London that Mehta came across the works of British artist Francis Bacon (1909-92). He was instantly swayed by Bacon’s raw, grotesque, emotionally charged images of anguished humanity, probably because he had himself witnessed violent incidents from close quarters. “There were elements of violence in my childhood. One incident left a deep impression on me. At the time of (the country’s) Partition, I was living on Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai, which was virtually a Muslim ghetto. I remember watching a young man being slaughtered in the street below my window. The crowd beat him to death, smashed his head with stones…I was sick with fever for days afterwards and the image still haunts me today.”

Mehta’s paintings showed lifelong engagement with the human figure often positioned in conditions of conflict, pain and raging fury. His potent and meticulously rendered images of mythological characters such as Mahishasura and Kali were striking in composition and symbolism. He painted at a punishingly slow pace, producing, according to some estimates, no more than 300 works in his entire lifetime.

Awards, accolades, fakes

Mehta’s powerful, if disturbing images, did not fail to attract attention. In 1968, he won a gold medal at the first Triennial in New Delhi; in 1974, he got the Prix Nationale at the International Festival of Painting in France. He received the prestigious Kalidas Samman in 1988. The Indian government bestowed him with the Padma Bhushan Award in 2007.
Mehta’s paintings have been eagerly collected.

In November 2018, his Durga Mahishasura Mardini (1993) painted in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition was auctioned for a whopping Rs 20.8 crore in Mumbai.

Earlier, in June 2018, his ferocious blue Kali had sold for Rs 26 crores. Alongside such feats are reports of Mehta fakes doing the rounds. In a recent interview, Mehta’s son
revealed: “The Tyeb Mehta Foundation set up by the family regularly receives at least two to three requests for authentication of Mehta’s works. Only a miniscule number of the works sent to us for verification are authentic … We are lucky that my father documented most of his work. We have access to high-resolution images that provide us with a means of comparison — in that we do not rely on memory alone.”

 

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