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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tyeb Mehta, hope over hype

The Times of India, July 2, 2009

Nina Martyris

Tyeb Mehta, one of India’s finest painters who courted only his canvas and recoiled from the blandishments of the media and the market—though both pursued him—passed away in a Mumbai hospital in the early hours of Thursday morning on July 2.

The 84-year-old artist was born in Kapadwanj, Gujarat, but lived in Mumbai for most of his life apart from brief but crucially important spells in London, New York and Shantiniketan. Long debilitated by a weak heart, he spent the last few months inching forward in his Lokhandwala flat with the assistance of a walker and found it an effort even to converse with the friends who dropped in to see how he was doing.

Poor health was one of destiny’s more underhand blows, given that it was only in the winter of his days that Tyeb’s work was given the financial recompense that is the due of all good art. The turning point came in 2002 when a vibrant triptych called Celebration sold at Christie’s for Rs 1.5 crore. This was the first time an Indian painting had crossed the crore mark, and it made for a historic sale. A few years later in 2005, Mahishasura, a muscular work in which Durga grapples with the demon buffalo went for $1.5 million, again the first Indian painting to murder the million-dollar mark. It was another matter altogether that the auction money did not reach him since both paintings were re-sales and fattened only their owners, but the glittering prices did wonders for his equity and esteem.

It would, however, gravely belittle both man and artist merely to use a string of zeroes, no matter how dazzling, as a measure of his excellence and commitment to the ideals of equality and freedom. When Tyeb was 22, India was partitioned, and so was his street. He could not cross from Mohammed Ali Road to his workplace, Famous Studios, then located at Tardeo. In the quickening bloodlust, he saw a young man being lynched and this horrifying little scene haunted him all his life. “The crowd beat him to death and smashed his head with stones,’’ he said in an interview to art critic Nancy Adajania for the book Tyeb Mehta—Ideas Images Exchanges. “I was sick with fever for days afterwards and the image still haunts me today. I am paralysed by the sight of blood, violence of any kind, even shouting...’’

Suffering was a giant theme that Tyeb confronted relentlessly and the pain of the human condition howls forth from his works like a long and silent Munchian scream. The influence of Picasso, Matisse, Bacon and Kandinsky is evident in Tyeb’s oeuvre, and Kandinsky’s chaos-control conflict is manifest in his solid planes of colour embedded with falling figures, lolling breasts, wounded flesh and bloodied mouths.

Many of the protagonists in Tyeb’s work—the rickshaw puller, the trussed bull, Kali—are rooted in autobiography: a vacation spent with his grandmother in Calcutta gave birth to the rickshaw puller. And after he shot footage at a Bandra abbatoir for a documentary Koodal (Tamil for ‘meeting point’; the film won a Filmfare Critics award), the vision of a bull bound and broken on the floor tormented him. Kali, powerful and dangerous, fascinated him, and he once said that he lived with the idea for three years before he had the courage to pick up a stick of red chalk and draw the first frightening images of a maw glutted with blood, a tongue thrusting out for more. Tyeb drew many Kalis, always choosing soft and lumpish contours for her body which had a nameless menace to them.

One of the most definitive leaps that Tyeb made as an artist—the introduction of the diagonal in his paintings—was the result of an accident. In 1969, he thought he had hit a dead end, and in a flounce of frustration he flung a black streak across his canvas. Then, as the jagged drama of the diagonal hit him, he knew he had made a breakthrough, for the slanting gash was the visual equivalent of the biblical verb ‘cleave’ that at once joins and divides.

M F Husain, whose association with Tyeb Mehta goes back to the time when they were both art students at the Sir JJ School of Art and members of the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay, has called him “the greatest figurative painter in our time, better than anyone else—and that includes myself’’. The other artist whom Husain singled out as “the greatest abstractionist in our time’’ was V S Gaitonde, who spent his last days alone and unsung in his Delhi flat, a blank canvas staring mutely at him. Until the very last, Gaitonde struggled to paint, just like Tyeb—-who, according to his wife and mainstay Sakina-—clutched at his brushes and tubes of paint and wanted nothing more than to return from hospital to the warm and healing embrace of his studio.

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