Diagonals, goddesses, and demons: Our ‘Celebration’ of Tyeb Mehta’s genius on his birth anniversary

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Celebration; Photo courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery

One of the giants of the Indian art scene, Tyeb Mehta was born on July 26, 1925 in Kapadwanj, Gujarat. Abir Pothi pays tribute to this legacy on this day

The anecdotes surrounding his art practice are many. One goes that an angry outburst, in a moment of creative frustration, he splashed a diagonal streak of paint on his canvas. The serendipitous composition appealed to him and he made a series of drawings where diagonal shapes provided bold backdrops for animal and human forms. Mehta’s stylistic narrative underwent conspicuous transformations throughout his life. Three major junctures that uniquely impacted his practice were his long stays in London (1959 – 1964), New York (1968) and Santiniketan (1984 – 1985).

The Triumph of Vision; Photo Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery

Throughout his life, despite stylistic improvisations and experimentation, he kept coming back to similar themes. Rickshaws, rickshaw pullers, horses and bulls comprised a large repertoire of his work. Another recurrent theme, of falling men or birds, emerged out of a traumatic incident that took place during his youth; the young Tyeb could never get over the sight of a communal mob killing a man.  Falling, then, was perhaps a symbolism of the debasement of human character or perhaps referred to his own helplessness in the midst of snowballing injustice.

Even though he received a diploma from J J School of Arts (in 1952), he was briefly drawn to film editing. His growing proximity with the Progressive Artists Group of which members were fellow pioneers such as MF Hussein, S H Raza, Krishen Khanna, among others, pulled him back to the canvas. The love for films, however, remained a constant through his life and in 1970 he directed a short film titled Koodal. He received the Filmfare Critics’ Award for the same.

Untitled; Photo Courtesy Christie’s

The record-breaking sales of his paintings established him firmly in the top league in India and abroad. Tyeb Mehta’s painting Kali (1989) fetched Rs 26.4 crore at Saffron Art’s recent ‘Milestone 200th Auction’ in 2018.  In 2002, Celebration (1995) was sold at Christie’s for Rs 2.19 crore – the highest price an Indian painting fetched at the time. In 2005, Mahishasura (1997) was sold upwards of Rs 10.9 crore.

Mehta died following a heart attack on July 2, 2009.