Abirpothi

India’s only daily art newspaper

Tyeb Mehta: A modernist Indian master whose powerful paintings minted their worth

July 26, On This Day

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A much-revered painter from the first post-colonial generation of artists in India, Tyeb Mehta was born on July 26, 1925, and had a prolific career over at least six decades.

Also known as a sculptor and film maker, Mehta was part of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, which comprised other greats like FN Souza, SH Raza and MF Husain. He is said to have “broken free from the nationalist Bengal school and embraced Modernism instead, with its post-impressionist colours, cubist forms and brusque, expressionistic styles”.

Although born in Gujarat’s Kapadvanj, Mehta was brought up in the Crawford Market neighbourhood of Mumbai, populated by Dawoodi Bohras. At the age of 22, during 1947 Partition riots in Mumbai, Mehta witnessed a man being stoned to death by a mob on Mohammed Ali Road. This he not only expressed in a drawing, but it was to have a lasting impact on his work, leading to stark and often disturbing depiction of his subjects.

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One of his noted stints and founts of influence is Shantiniketan. Later, during his time in London, Mehta’s style was influenced by the expressionist works of Francis Bacon, but while in New York thereafter, his work came to be characterised by minimalism.

A subject Tyeb has incorporated in his works for almost 30 years was the trussed bull. “For him, it was important on several levels. It was a statement of a great energy blocked or tied up,” writes noted art expert Ranjit Hoskote.

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Mehta incorporated several mythological figures into his work, highlighted by the depictions of goddess Kali and demon Mahishasura. He also worked with several triptychs, which were later sold for huge sums.

Remembered as one of the priciest Indian artists ever, Mehta had some works sold for millions at various auctions — such as ‘Kali’ for USD 3,998,000, ‘Bull’ for USD 3,222,759, and the triptych ‘Celebration’, which when sold for Rs15 million ($317,500) at a Christie\’s auction in 2002 was not only the highest sum for an Indian painting at an international auction, but also triggered the subsequent great Indian art boom.

Interestingly, his ‘Diagonal Series’, which he created through the 1970s, was accidentally discovered in 1969 when he flung a black streak across his canvas in a moment of creative frustration!

Mehta received several awards during his career, including the Padma Bhushan in 2007.

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In ‘Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, 2005’, Hoskote also wrote: “A primary experience of shock resonates at the core of 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.”

Mehta died at the age of almost 84 July 2, 2009, at a Mumbai hospital, following a heart attack.

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