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A peep behind the lofty canvases of Tyeb Mehta to discover his towering personality

On the 95th birth anniversary of Tyeb Mehta, STIR presents an exclusive interview with Sakina Mehta, wife of the late artist, who takes us down the memory lane.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jul 24, 2020

When we think of an artist, and an iconic one at that, it is natural to imagine a larger-than-life persona. At one level, artists are not like film actors, those who live two parallel lives, the real and the reel. But it has always intrigued me to know more about the individual whose works I have admired. Tyeb Mehta is one of the few Indian artists whose works first caught my interest. It was still early days for me and I did not have much of the art historical references to source from. So, without any knowledge and very limited experience, I began to decipher the meaning and possible reason for his classic distorted figures. It almost felt that one could like his paintings or dislike them, but they could not be ignored. And as I made sense of the work itself, I became increasingly interested to know the man, the person Tyeb was. Such strong works… bold and at times even grotesque – was the maker an aggressive, forceful person…like his works…one who is serious, no nonsense kinds? What kind of music did he listen to? Did he enjoy being with his family or was he a loner? Was he flamboyant or austere?

I speak to Sakina Mehta, wife of late Tyeb Mehta, to solve the ‘jigsaw puzzle’. Here is an excerpt of the conversation that provides a view behind the canvas-facade.

Tyeb and Sakina Mehta | STIRworld
Tyeb and Sakina Mehta Image Credit: Courtesy of Sakina Mehta

Rahul Kumar (RK): What kind of a person was Tyeb Mehta? 

Sakina Mehta (SM): Tyeb was very much a family man. He enjoyed spending time with the family. In the early sixties, when we came back from London, I was a working woman and Tyeb helped with all the chores. He used to look after the children and go to the market to buy groceries without hesitation. He was also a people’s person. He enjoyed the company of his friends and fellow artists and often invited them to the house for a meal. He had a great sense of humour and enjoyed a good laugh. He laughed the loudest at his own jokes! He was very fond of the children, of course. He spent a lot of time with them, he also walked our daughter Himani to and from the school bus stop every day. Our son Yusuf didn't know much Hindi, so he used to teach him Hindi as well with their studies; Tyeb took Himani to the movies while the paint on his canvas was drying.

He really loved listening to music. He enjoyed both western and Indian classical music, but preferred the latter. Vilayat Khan on the sitar was his favourite. We used to often go to Modern School for the all-night concerts. Sometimes he would make us stay up the whole night at the concerts of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar. Tyeb also cooked occasionally when I was not able to, and his favourite meal to cook was Mutton Keema. He made the best keema.

Tyeb with his wife Sakina, daughter Himani and son-in-law Vaseem | STIRworld
Tyeb with his wife Sakina, daughter Himani and son-in-law Vaseem Image Credit: Courtesy of Sakina Mehta

RK: Please describe his studio…in terms of space and work environment.

SM: Tyeb did not have a separate studio at all. He worked from home and that also mostly in a one-bedroom apartment. At night we slept in the room on the floor and during the day the mattresses would be rolled up and the space turned into his studio. There was a strong smell of turpentine in the house all the time. He had very little space to work in, even when we lived in various houses in Nizamuddin in Delhi from the mid 1960s till the early 1980s, he never had a studio space. Then there were times when the only way was sharing some area with the landlord; I remember there was a passage before the entrance of the house, and Tyeb worked out of that walkway, but he persevered.  

When we moved to Bombay in the early 1980, we had a very small single room apartment, but he still painted during the day in that space. Sometimes he would request the neighbours to keep his painting in their space just so he could look at it from a distance. Tyeb was the artist-in-residence in Shantineketan for two years in the mid-80s. So while we lived there in Rajbari, a beautiful bungalow, Tyeb had a large room to paint. That’s where he created the Santineketan Triptych! Only in the mid 1990s, when we began living in Lokhandwala, we got a two-bedroom apartment and Tyeb finally got a studio set-up in the second bedroom. Some of Tyeb’s largest and most acclaimed works have been painted in the tinniest and cramped spaces.

Santiniketan Triptych by Tyeb Mehta | STIRworld
Santiniketan Triptych by Tyeb Mehta Image Credit: Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

Tyeb liked to work almost every day. When he was not painting, he was reading non-fiction on art. He had a fantastic collection of books on art.  When he started painting, he would work non-stop. He did not like anybody around while he was working – well, I was the only exception. I could sit there the whole time while he was working, but he liked to be alone with his thoughts and concentrate. Even though he was very fond of music, he never played it when he was painting.

RK: It is said that the gruesome acts of violence that he witnessed during India's partition left a deep impression on him, which eventually found its way into some of his work. Did he talk about some of those memories?

SM: During the partition of India in 1947 there were many violent riots. At that time, he was living on Mohammad Ali road in Lehri House on the fourth floor. In that turbulent period, he witnessed the horrific violence of communal riots. He saw a man being killed in front of his eyes in the madness that was happening on the streets. Those scenes of raw, brutal violence never really left him. He was so affected by these sights that he fell ill. These images continued to haunt him and eventually reflected in his work.

It is important to note that his art was about non-violence even though the images may be understood by many as ‘violent’. These showed even in the film that Tyeb made for Films Division, Koodal (Tamil for meeting place). He shot part of this in a Bandra slaughterhouse. The film won the Filmfare Critics award in 1970. Koodal was the personal depiction of what he wanted to say at the time and that was all about non-violence.

15 mins watch Koodal, a film by Tyeb Mehta in 1970| STIRworld
Koodal, a film by Tyeb Mehta (1970) Video Credit: Courtesy of Film Division of India

RK: Some of the most significant works of Tyeb have references of mythology, like his series on the goddess Kali and Mahishasura. Did he read and consciously refer to mythology?

SM: When he was a young man, he spent a lot of time with his maternal grandparents in Calcutta, and he was very fascinated by the iconography of goddesses Kali and Durga. In 1993, he got a chance to paint the Durga for the annual issue of Anand Bazar Patrika. He portrayed the Durga in his own unique style with Mahishasura.

He was very fascinated by the Kali as well. He read up books on the subject and researched the mythology thoroughly. He had a very strong affinity toward Bengal and when he got invited to be an artist-in-residence at Kalabhavan, Santineketan, he gladly accepted and we lived there for two years from 1984-86. This period was an important influence on his work and many of his paintings that are now well known are inspired by Bengal. He also explored bronze casting at Santinekatan.

Rickshaw Puller (1982) by Tyeb Mehta | STIRworld
Rickshaw Puller (1982) Image Credit: Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

RK: Talk about his days as a movie editor. What led him to abandon that and join a course at JJ School of Art?

SM: Tyeb’s family owned and operated few cinema houses. In his early years he was exposed to a lot of Indian cinema. He had access to cinema houses where he saw many movies. In fact, he was expected to join the family business. But Tyeb always had a creative bent of mind and when he got the opportunity to work as an editor in Famous Studios, he readily agreed. One day when he was traveling on a tram, he bumped into a friend named Matin, who happened to be an art director. Tyeb told him that he liked his work and that’s when Matin advised him to hone his skills in fine art and join the JJ School of Art.

His passion for cinema remained and he used to go to watch all the new films. But once he joined the school, he never looked back and found his true calling. He met all his artist friends there and as they say…the rest is history.

Tyeb and Sakina Mehta in New York (2005) | STIRworld
Tyeb and Sakina Mehta in New York (2005) Image Credit: Courtesy of Sakina Mehta

RK: Why did you move to London, and how long were you there for? Tell us about your stay in the US as well.

SM: Tyeb’s teacher at JJ School of Art, Palsikar, told him, “What you are seeing in the books in school is just an image of the real work. When you see it in original and the actual scale, it will be a different experience”. His seniors and friends, Raza and Akbar, also encouraged him to travel. That is how we went to London in 1959. Our son Yusuf was three-years-old then. We stayed in London till 1965, so we were there for about five years. Our daughter Himani was born there in 1961. 

London was a struggle to make ends meet and both of us took jobs. I joined Thomas Cook and Tyeb did a whole variety of jobs. He painted in his spare time and also had a very successful exhibition at the Bear Lane gallery, Oxford, in 1961. But he was keen to dedicate himself to painting and in London it would be impossible for us to sustain if we both did not work. So, we made a conscious choice to return to India. We moved to Delhi and lived there in Nizamuddin. He made friends with other artists, also living in the vicinity - Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Hussain, Gaitonde. Sanko Chaudhari, the well-known sculptor and his wife Iraben were our neighbours and our dear friends.

In 1968, he got the Rockefeller Fellowship to go for a year to America and travel and look at art in the American context. He could take a companion along so I went with him. We travelled to different cities in the US and experienced the art scene there. It was a fabulous year!

Bal Chhabda, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, SH Raza, MF Hussain | Tyeb Mehta | STIRworld
Bal Chhabda, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, SH Raza, MF Hussain Image Credit: Courtesy of Sakina Mehta

RK: How was his relationship with the fellow artists of the Progressive Artists Group? 

SM: He never formally joined Progressive Artists Group. They were all his dear friends. They respected each other and met often to share ideas and thoughts. They gave constructive criticism to each other, about the work, and they shared a very good relationship in general. They all spent a lot of time in each other’s homes, especially in Delhi, when we all lived in close proximity. Our house was an open house where everyone was welcome at any time. I used to come back from work to find that Tyeb had invited friends who would invariably stay for dinner. I would rustle up a quick meal and the children would run to the nearby basti and get the rotis from tandoor. Those were vibrant and unforgettable days.

Tyeb (with Sakina) receiving Padma Bhushan from then President APJ Abdul Kalam (2007) | STIRworld
Tyeb (with Sakina) receiving Padma Bhushan from then President APJ Abdul Kalam (2007) Image Credit: Courtesy of Sakina Mehta

RK: Tyeb was one of the artists who was able to see financial success of his art in his lifetime. How did he react to the skyrocketing prices that his work went for?

SM: We lived a very austere and simple life that did not really change when Tyeb found financial success, although late in his career. The high, record-breaking prices at the auctions did not affect him at all. It obviously provided validation for his lifelong commitment to his art but it did not affect his sincerity to his work. The family would be excited by it all and we would celebrate with a nice cosy meal.

RK: Was he fond of contemporary art, especially the young and earlier career artists in the late 90s and 2000s?

SM: Tyeb was very curious to see what the younger artists were doing and he would encourage them to come home and deliberate, discuss what they were struggling with. He would pull out books from his vast library and spend time with them, encouraging them to read and expand their world-view. He was very accessible as a senior artist to the younger, upcoming artists and students of art. Innumerable cups of tea and home cooked meals were always offered at these sessions.

Tyeb and Sakina Mehta with their daughter Himani | STIRworld
Tyeb and Sakina Mehta with their daughter Himani Image Credit: Courtesy of Sakina Mehta

RK: Do you have one anecdote about him that left a deep impact on the family?

SM: There are many life experiences that I have shared with Tyeb over the course of a lifetime. The one that has stayed with the entire family is that he was a perfectionist. He would spend months creating a painting, but if at the end of it he was not completely satisfied with it, we would see the canvas destroyed and he would start over. This is the legacy that he has left for the family, and in fact for all of the art community. Strive for perfection and do not be afraid to start over again.

That is the essence of what he left for us and it lives with all of us even today.

(I am thankful to Himani Dehlvi, daughter of Sakina and Tyeb Mehta, for sharing the treasured family photographs and for her support in making this conversation happen.)

Also read art historian Yashodhara Dalmia's exclusive conversation with STIR on the early works of Tyeb Mehta.

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