A prominent modernist painter, Tyeb Mehta is best known for his renditions of totemic Indian forms, particularly the goddess and the bull. Throughout his career, Mehta’s critical success was matched by considerable commercial interest in his work, fetching record amounts at auctions. He was among the first living Indian artists to attract such high prices.
Born in 1925 in Kapadvanj, Gujarat to a Dawoodi Bohra family, Mehta grew up in the Crawford Market area of Mumbai. His family owned and operated some cinema halls, and after a brief period working in them, he left the family business to work as a film editor at the Famous Studios in Mumbai. Later, he joined the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai to study painting.
After his graduation in 1952, Mehta became part of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, established in 1947. Fellow artists Akbar Padamsee and SH Raza encouraged him to travel and live in London, where Mehta and his wife Sakina lived from 1959 to 1965. In London, he encountered the works of Francis Bacon, whose influence seeped into his approach to anatomy and colour. During this period, he developed a modernist vocabulary in his work, influenced by European art. After returning to India in 1965, Mehta set up a base in New Delhi. In 1968, he was awarded the Rockefeller Fund Fellowship and lived in New York City for a year, where he was exposed to abstract expressionists, particularly Barnett Newman, whose work inspired Mehta to include blocks of contrasting colours in his paintings. In the mid-1980s, he permanently moved back to Mumbai.
In the 1970s, he started making the “Indianised” paintings for which he would become best known. One of his most significant works, the Diagonal series, was painted in this decade. In it, he used some of the techniques that would go on to become his signature: flat planes of contrasting colour which divided the canvas diagonally into separate spaces. During the 1980s, Mehta spent some time as an artist-in-residence at Kala Bhavana, Shantiniketan. In 1991, he painted the Falling Figures series, encapsulating his vision of post-Partition violence.
The falling figure, the goddess, the rickshaw-puller and the trussed bull are some of the recurring motifs in Mehta’s work. Many of his works are meditations on the human propensity for violence, from the Partition to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The falling figure, making an appearance in many of his works, is a modernist symbol of universal suffering that he applied specifically to post-Partition India. The rickshaw-puller attests to both the suffering of the human body and its endurance, and the misery human beings inflict on one another—as one person is comfortably seated on the rickshaw while a second toils to pull it forward. The bull, often shown as a load-bearing or sacrificial creature, is used as a recurring signifier of helplessness, analogous to the figure of an oppressed person.
The surfaces of Mehta’s paintings were usually matte sheets of flat colour. He applied Cubist techniques of fragmentation to depictions of movement from ancient Indian figurative sculptures, such as the Nataraja. Mehta’s diagonal division of compositions makes minimal use of line and colour. Layering iconographic elements into a sparse arrangement, his paintings have acquired acclaim for their sense of movement and profound humanism.
Known as a careful and deliberate painter, Mehta completed no more than around 300 works in his lifetime. His critical acclaim and limited oeuvre have contributed to an intensely competitive market for his works—the sale of which has also directed commercial interest towards the works of other Indian artists. Even during his lifetime, his works sold for unprecedented prices. His triptych Celebration (1995) was sold by Christie’s in 2002 for INR 2.19 crore, making Mehta the first Indian artist whose work had sold for over a crore. This was followed by more record-breaking sales, including Mahishasura (1994) for INR 10.9 crore in 2005, Woman on Rickshaw (1994) for INR 22.99 crore in 2017, and Kali (1989) for INR 26.4 crore in 2018.
Mehta has been honoured with several awards. These include a Gold Medal from the Lalit Kala Akademi (2004), the Manpatra from the Government of Maharashtra (2004), the Kalidas Samman by Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal (1988), a Gold Medal during the first Triennial of the Lalit Kala Akademi (1968), and the Rockefeller Fund Fellowship (1968–69). In addition to painting, Mehta also worked on films, most notably his 1970 film Koodal, which won the Filmfare Critics Award. His work has been exhibited at numerous international and national venues including the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi; the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi; Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Tate Modern, London; and the Gallery Le Monde de l’Art, Paris. His paintings form part of several major public and private collections.
Tyeb Mehta passed away in 2009 in Mumbai. His estate is managed by his wife, Sakina.
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