Though India's art lovers have admired Tyeb Mehta's work for decades, his real moment in the sun came in 2002, when his triptych Celebration became the first Indian painting to sell at auction for over 10 million rupees. In 2005, he secured a place in the history of the art market by becoming the first Indian artist to have a work sell for over a million dollars. His place in the history of Indian art had, of course, been secure for a long time, but it is good he has lived to see himself gain pride of place on the financial side of things as well.
I edited a magazine called Art India between 1998 and 2000, a time when few believed such astronomical prices would be achieved in the near future. The first issue under my direction had a Tyeb Mehta painting titled Mahishasura on its cover.
Actually the painting was called Mahishasuramardini, but with M F Husain being victimised by the Hindu Right, Tyeb preferred to omit the reference to Durga. His health was fragile and he wanted no distraction from his work.
I went over to his apartment to collect the slide for the cover, and to speak about his paintings. We sat in a small living room that doubled as his studio. I knew Celebration well, since it hung in the Times of India building which I visited regularly. Seeing his tiny working space, I asked how he'd managed to paint that massive canvas. This is what I gathered: his studio was only large enough to hold one panel of the triptych. His neighbour, who owned a bigger flat, would take his family out every weekend. With his permission, each Sunday afternoon, Tyeb would have the three panels of Celebration moved to the flat next door so he could see them side by side. Then he’d paint for the rest of the week on the basis of that memory. Since his work is so much about balance, hearing how he painted Celebration made his achievement all the more astonishing.
That real public acclaim should have come to him in his late seventies is, in a way, appropriate. He is not a man to rush things. Even his introduction to art was slow to come, and he matured as a painter long after his most talented contemporaries. His family had connections in the movie business, and he trained first as a cinematographer, and then as a film editor. Around the time of Partition, he began finding it difficult to make the journey from home in
His first significant painting, Trussed Bull, was executed in 1956, when he was 30 years old.
The picture reminds me of diagrams showing edible sections of cattle; the haunch, the rump and so on. The bull has fascinated the artist for over fifty years since that early effort. He continues to explore the image, along with select others that form a small repertoire of motifs. There is the rickshaw puller, depicted in this charcoal drawing from 1959;
the diagonal, represented by these two paintings, from 1969 and 1979 respectively.
and the falling figure, visible below in a transitional painting from 1966 in which Tyeb divided the picture space into a grid, foreshadowing later, more successful attempts to combine deeply emotive figuration and geometric precision.
The vertiginous composition above, from 1967, allows the agony of the falling subject full expression. These paintings are all fairly large, 5 to 6 feet high or wide.
Occasionally, Tyeb mixes two of these themes, combining bull and rickshaw, or falling figure and rickshaw as in this painting from 1993.
Since the mid 1980s, he has frequently painted Kali,
and the buffalo demon Mahisasura, sometimes engaged in combat with Durga Mahishasuramardini
The trussed bull, earliest of Tyeb's abiding concerns, was inspired by a visit to an abattoir. The artist saw the animals being tied up and then slaughtered, and the vision obsessed him thereafter. The idea of such a strong animal rendered helpless became for him symbolic of attacks on the spirit in general. After traveling to
This phase of Tyeb’s art is often said to be deeply influenced by the English painter Francis Bacon.
The Bacon painting you see above is a version of Diego Velasquez’s 17th century portrait of Pope Innocent X.
It is evident that Bacon has turned on their head the lavish symbols of power evident in the Spanish master's portrait.
Tyeb’s work, in my opinion, never has the ruthlessness that Bacon’s does.
In this painting, for example, it looks like the bull is lying in the lap of the figure as it breathes its last. Violence and trauma are fixtures in Tyeb’s art as well as Bacon's, but the impelling force behind a Tyeb painting rarely appears to be destructive. There is usually more sympathy, a sense of victimhood, implied in the Indian artist's figures.
The variance in approach is, in my view, attributable to the very different histories of modernism in
Tyeb continued painting in this expressionist mode through the sixties, before receiving a Rockefeller grant to visit the
Tyeb has often said that seeing colour field painting physically was entirely different from viewing images of it as he had previously done. And that is true of a lot of painting which uses geometrical patterns, whether Mondrian or Raza. All Raza bindu paintings look similar in reproduction, but there’s a huge qualitative difference between them that becomes apparent on carefully observing them in the cloth, as it were.
After returning to
In his own account, after many attempts at incorporating Newman, the artist threw paint at the canvas in frustration. To this day, incidentally, Tyeb destroys paintings if he isn’t completely satisfied with the result. The time he flung paint at the canvas, though, was providential. The paint described a rough diagonal on the canvas and, staring at it, Tyeb realized he may have a way out of his predicament. He began to work on dividing the picture space diagonally rather than vertically as he had previously done.
The diagonal is more dynamic than the vertical or horizontal, a fact utilised by artists in numerous eras, notably the Baroque age, in which painters distinguished themselves from the classicism of Raphael and his followers by emphasising diagonals, thus creating a sense of movement.
Tyeb’s application of paint changed dramatically during his early experiments with the diagonal. He abandoned thick impasto and began to employ flat, bright planes of colours. To this day, he prefers pure colours and doesn’t use many layers, so the first application is important, it has to come out right. From the perspective of the connoisseur as well as the collector, there is a reason to be thankful that Tyeb abandoned impasto. Time has not been kind to his early works. It is not unusual to see paint peeling off canvas, and if you come across any painting of his from before 1968 which appears in pristine condition you can assume it has been heavily restored. [Dadiba Pundole, who was at the lecture, commented that Tyeb's paintings on board have survived well, while those on canvas have suffered].
With the diagonal, Tyeb arrived at the style that he has retained into the 21st century. His commitment to the figure stayed constant
When I speak of connections and relations and break ups, there is a meaning aside from the stylistic which is being evoked. It is only natural to surmise that the diagonal was substantially inspired by the memory of
It is worth asking, though, why Partition should come up as a subject for examination so many years after the event. Surely even with so single-minded an artist as Tyeb, some expiry date exists beyond which memories lose their intensity. It could be that the upheaval in
A major leap in Tyeb’s art took place in 1985, when he was living in Santiniketan as artist-in-residence. His health had undergone a turn for the worse: he'd suffered a debilitating bout of Hepatitis and, four years later, a heart attack. These were hardly the conditions under which one would expect original art to be created by a man approaching old age, but Tyeb produced in Bengal a three panel work known simple as the Santiniketan Triptych which is, I believe, one of the greatest images to be painted by an Indian in the twentieth century.
What you see on the screen does it no justice. You really need to go and spend a lot of time in front of it, absorbing the marvelous equilibrium orchestrated between forms and colours. Luckily, anybody can view the triptych because it is in a public collection: in fact, it hangs at the other end of this road, in the National Gallery of Modern Art.
I haven't been able to find even a semi-adequate image for the whole painting, so I'm adding details of the three panels separately, starting with the one on the left.
Before this painting, Tyeb had worked with one, two, at most three figures. To expand suddenly to some two dozen while retaining his hard-won formal rigour was a remarkable achievement. Obviously Tyeb had been influenced, like so many who have been to Santiniketan, by the Santhal tribals who live in the surrounding areas. The drummers who appear in the left panel would become a feature of his study in coming years.
One issue he faced when tackling this canvas was that of narrative. He comes from a school which believes making a story out of a painting and explaining it in those terms is trivializing art. It’s difficult enough having two figures without narrative, but what do you do in the case of so many? There is clearly something happening whose broad framework one can discern, even if one had not heard of the charak puja conducted mainly in rural areas of Bengal at the end of spring.
The collection of figures with the musicians on the left indicate it’s a ritual, perhaps a procession of the kind depicted in his second such triptych, Celebration, created a decade later.A green figure on the right appears to be strung up, as if by a lynch mob. In the central panel we see an upside down head and hand at the feet of an androgynous figure, female in the frontal view and male in the white profile. A deity of some kind, perhaps. All these clues might indicate a human sacrifice , but the seated woman at the centre makes a tender picture with the goat which nuzzles up to her, and perhaps grows human limbs to embrace her.
And what of the faces of the women behind her? Are they celebrating or mourning?
It is, I believe, pointless trying to fully resolve these ambiguities, though Ramachandra Gandhi made a heroic effort to do so in his book Svaraj, which uses the Santiniketan triptych as a take-off point. Gandhi’s complicated interpretation involves seeing the panel on the left as representing the secular humanism that currently dominates the world, the panel on the right as religious fanaticism which is at war with secular humanists, and the central panel as a reconciliation of the two in the Advaita philosophy of dissolving the barrier between the I and the Other.
While I believe Ramachandra Gandhi’s interpretation is a case of over-reading, perhaps a conscious one, I do feel that the idea of reconciliation is central to the painting. So much of Tyeb’s work is about equilibrium, and in this case the equilibrium involves reconciling the opposite poles of grief and joy, celebration and execution, devotion and ritual sacrifice.
If Gandhi brings an advaitist perspective to bear on a single monumental painting, Ranjit Hoskote reads Tyeb's entire oeuvre in the light of the artist's Shia (Dawoodi Bohra to be specific) upbringing. Tyeb's focus on injustice and physical suffering might be traced to his religious background, but I believe Ranjit overstates his case when he suggests that many of Tyeb's recurrent images are "avatars of Hussein", whose death in the battle of Karbala is the prime focus of Shia devotion. Martyrs are heroic victims, their heroism derived from the cause they represent. They have the option to save their skin but refuse to compromise because they believe their cause is worth dying for. Do Tyeb's falling figures, trussed bulls and trapped rickshaw pullers fit into this scheme?
To my eyes, they have no agency, make no choices, represent no cause. They are victims, pure and simple, not martyrs or avatars of Hussein. (I omitted this passage from my talk because Ranjit was not present to defend his viewpoint. I am publishing it now because this is a public forum. Ranjit's long essay, which appears in Vadehra Art Gallery's Tyeb Mehta: Idea Images Exchanges remains the best general introduction to the artist's life and art currently in print)
To return to Tyeb’s
This sort of depiction is not unfamiliar within the Indian tradition. I want to take a step back and then two steps forward to contextualize it. The step backward involves the history of colonial interpretations of Indian art, specially of Hindu iconography.
Sculptures like this one of Chamunda were not assimilable into the canon of European ideas about the beautiful, and were therefore dismissed as monstrous. This changed with the intervention of the philosopher-politician Edmund Burke, best known in
In the current global scenario, art is not particularly interested in the sublime. Much contemporary work is completely different in spirit from Tyeb’s paintings. Where he is intense and invariably serious, aiming to create universal images, work by young artists tends to be intellectually playful, ironic, interested in pop images rather than classical culture, and engaged with particular political issues of the moment.
To illustrate this difference, compare Tyeb’s response to
It is instantly identifiable as an echo of Hanuman carrying Dronagiri mountain in calendar art images like this one.
Such depictions of Hanuman, devoted servant of Rama, were part of a nexus of imagery co-opted by Hindu nationalists when they pressed to build a Rama temple in place of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. In his canvas version, Jitish-Hanuman's mace is inscribed with the text of a secularist pledge taught in
Though Tyeb has never departed from his high modernist ideals to work in this kind of postmodern mode, one painting by him stands out in being as close to the postmodern spirit as he will ever get. That is his backhanded tribute to Francis Bacon, titled The Play, in which two wrestlers, one a Tyeb Mehta figure, the other a Baconian portrait tussle for supremacy.
I hope one of the things I have done in this lecture is to show that the reputation the artist has in some quarters of being excessively derivative of Bacon is a deeply misguided and limiting view of his considerable achievement.
MALE VICTIM, FEMALE DESTROYER
Before concluding, I want to offer an interpretation of my own related to Tyeb's output down the decades. It involves locating his victim-figures not within the rubric of martyrdom but of masculinity. The idea first struck me while looking one of his early oils on display at Saffronart's gallery in Bombay. It was a reclining figure lying next to a bull's head, an image the artist has painted a number of times.
The resemblance of the composition to common reclining-mother-with-child images like this 1906 painting by Paula Modersohn Becker was unmistakable, and shocking in its reversal of the usual tender intimacy of the subject.
Relating Tyeb's exploration of the trussed bull motif to the common use of the animal as an emblem of masculinity, the replacement of the infant with a bull's head seemed telling. I looked at his rickshaw works and noticed that females frequently appear in them, but relate to the vehicle in a very different way from the male pullers.
The lolling female above is a picture of relaxation in comparison with male figures who appear to be surrounded and hemmed in by their mode of sustenance. In at least one instance, the female appears in a dominating position looming over a struggling man.
Tyeb's encounters with rickshaws go back to childhood visits to his grandmother's home in Calcutta, but his interest in film assures us that he was familiar with Bimal Roy's seminal film Do Bigha Zameen, during a crucial scene of which a rich woman orders the protagonist to pull his rickshaw ever faster as part of a game, leading to him crashing the cart and injuring himself.
The mother goddess Kali was easy to incorporate into a scheme in which the male is at the mercy of or destroyed by a dominant female. In an earlier era one would be tempted to interpret Kali's mouth as a vagina dentata (at least one important critic has apparently has done so as part of an extensive Freudian analysis in an essay that, unfortunately, has never been published).
More interesting than Kali is the case of the goddess Durga and Mahishasura, the buffalo demon. In the legend, Mahishasura proposes to Durga and she accepts, before changing her mind, turning into an implacable opponent and ultimately slaying her former suitor.
If my interpretation is valid, Tyeb's work reiterates throughout his career the theme of the threatened male and destructive female . To my knowledge, he has never hinted at such a preoccupation in the course of conversations with friends. An attempt at biographical excavation is probably pointless, for he rarely speaks about his childhood. For those desirous of talking to him about the way his life and art intersect, the story begins in his twenties, with a skull smashed during a riot, with a bull in a Bandra abattoir. Had I observed this thread running through his painting earlier, I might have attempted to take it up with him, knowing the discussion would probably be futile. Now, that time is certainly past, and I am filled with regret that I did not pay closer attention to his paintings when I first began writing about art.