B. 1925 – D. 2009
From the beginning of his career, Tyeb Mehta has used but a handful of images, and these have been repeatedly worked at in different contexts, at different times: the trussed bull, the falling figure in mid-60s and -70s, the diagonal slashing across these. Influenced by French Modernism in the 1950s and 60s, Mehta practised a brushy texture and impasto-laden expressionism. In 1959, he left for London, where he remained for next five years. He returned to India in 1964, the country in its anxiety of modernization and the spirit of liberation not yet despaired. After 1968, the year in which he received the Rockefeller Foundation Grant, the anguish in his work was retained but he gravitated towards a new set of formal choices. The Falling Figure was born from his struggle with the self that accentuated the formal explication while lessening the forcefulness of the experience. The vulnerability of the Bull figure proposed the nature of the successor image and the terrifying memory of a man whose death Mehta had witnessed during the India-Pakistan partition. It is also the anguish and horror of the aftermath of the partition and the state of turbulence of the nation that led Mehta to create the powerful imagery.
The diagonal, that fierce weapon by which space could be reorganized and the self could stage its battle with itself, was born out of painterly frustration. The diagonal, a symbol of separation, cleavage and schism, was the tool with which Mehta activated the pictorial space. The acquisition of these themes into Mehta’s work is very much evident as it further enhances with the fractured pictorial space, and the distorted figures in order to bringing in the ancient and the modern on the same plane. The flat planes of contrasting colours heighten the intensity of their physical impact. The combination of Mehta’s figures and his unique treatment of them lend a heightened sense of tension to his work.
An Artist-in-Residence at Santiniketan from 1984 to 1985, Mehta returned with significant changes in his work, which was revitalizing for his work and also endowed it with a new imagery. The image now started challenging the onlooker’s self that constantly shifts while negotiating with the different trajectories of the world.
As art critic Ranjit Hoskote states, "Thus the diagonal leads directly to Tyeb’s images of the 1980s and 1990s which carried the metaphorical resonances of what I have termed the self-agnostic self: the man and the bull who form the conjoined halves of a tauromachy; Mahisha, who is part-buffalo and part god, perennially addressing the Devi, the mother goddess, in combat." Significantly, Mehta’s icon of choice whether Kali orDurga Mahishasurmardini has invariably been the samhara-murti, the war like deity embodying destruction, which he prefers to shanta-murti, the benign deity in tranquillity. His newly found image of Kali emerged in mid 1980s, an image rendered in Prussian blue, cobalt with the pink mouth and tongue as a shocking provocation.ã€€ His quest has been for an imagery that can convey the extremity of conflict, of strife, of schism, without in the slightest way suggesting a literal explanation. Mehta’s preoccupation with the myth of the goddess with a contemporary relevance succeeds in evoking the primordial presence of the goddess with a shocking effect.
Mehta’s film Koodal, an experimental film made for the Government of India’s Film Division, which a powerful depiction of the ordinary man's dilemma, won the Film fare Critic's Award in 1970.