Early works of Tyeb Mehta and the birth of his key motifs…bull and falling figure

Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia explains the significance of the time period of 50s to 80s in Tyeb Mehta’s oeuvre, in an exclusive interview with STIR.

by Shailaja Tripathi Published on : Jul 24, 2020

“There was a municipality place at Kennedy Bridge in Opera House, Mumbai, where the stray cows and buffaloes were brought. I used to go and sketch there. From there I moved to the slaughter house at Bandra near the masjid (mosque), and actually shot three minutes of my film Koodal there. These three minutes are the most poignant sequences in my film. These images are very near to my mental make-up. The bull is a powerful animal and when its legs are tied down and thrown down, it’s an assault on life itself.”

Tyeb Mehta had shared the above-mentioned incident with senior art historian Yashodhara Dalmia during an interview in 1989. Dalmia has extensively studied and written about the Progressive Artists’ Group, an outfit that gave a new direction to Indian art with a language that was rooted in the milieu of the time blended with western artistic practices. In 2011, Dalmia had written Triumph of Vision on Mehta, who was part of the group. 

Mehta was celebrated and feted for his art. It fetched millions at auctions and broke several records. At a Christie’s auction in 2002, his triptych Celebration got sold for INR 2.19 crore, making him the first Indian artist to cross the crore mark. Three years later, Mahishasura was bought for INR 10.9 crore. Then came Woman on Rickshaw, which fetched INR 22.99 crore at Christie’s auction in 2017, and Kali went under the hammer for INR 26.4 crore at Saffronart’s auction in 2018. These paintings came to be hailed as iconic works of the artist. These works were cited, discussed and recalled time and again but there was a journey Mehta undertook to reach there. What was the process that led him to mutilations, contortions, diagonal lines and intertwined figures?

Yashodhara Dalmia tells us that his early works, created from 1950s to early 80s, laid the basis for the artistic oeuvre to evolve and emerge later. He was born on July 25, 1925, in Kapadvanj, Gujarat, but grew up in Mumbai. Mehta briefly worked as a film editor and then joined Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai to study art. He graduated from the art school in 1952.

Trussed Bull; a work of artist Tyeb Mehta | Vadehra Art Gallery | STIRworld
Trussed Bull (1961); oil on canvas, by Tyeb Mehta Image Credit: Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

“This period is of great significance because all the motifs, which he used in his art after he finished his training in JJ School of Art, were motifs which became sort of reworked and rethought out for the rest of his journey. There were three motifs Tyeb used, which were very expressive in themselves and they became part of his painterly career. These were the Trussed Bull, Woman on the Rickshaw, and the Falling Figure,” states Dalmia. She further adds, “In the Mahishasura figures he continually makes heads of Mahishasura and they are extremely forceful. They have a lot of power. One sees face of evil but one also sees face of turmoil and extreme turbulence. Where does it come from? It comes from the bull itself. It is a strong sense of a life being nipped in the bud that is not being allowed to grow or fully attain its achievement”.

Falling Figure by Tyeb Mehta | Vadehra Art Gallery | STIRworld
Falling Figure (1967); oil on canvas by Tyeb Mehta Image Credit: Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

According to Dalmia, this period is characterised by intensity and rawness. In this context, it is important to look at two seminal events - India gaining independence and Partition, that he was witness to. “Tyeb actually saw a man being killed after the partition. He was looking out of his window and he actually saw a man being killed in post-partition riots. That had a tremendous effect on him and he couldn’t forget it for the rest of his life. The bull itself and the Falling Figure became a symbol of a helpless suffering that a man undergoes in post-independence India. The very thing that the people of his generation had struggled and fought hard for the independence of the country from colonial rule, but more importantly, what was happening afterwards? Were things going the way they should have gone? This feeling was very much there. All these come together in the Falling Figure in which a man, sort of helplessly and abysmally, is suspending but gravitating downwards,” she explains.

Confidant by Tyeb Mehta |Vadehra Art Gallery | STIRworld
Confidant (1962), oil on canvas, by Tyeb Mehta Image Credit: Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

The artist’s travels to London and New York too had a bearing on his practice. From 1959 to 1964 Mehta lived in London where Francis Bacon’s angst-ridden art left him deeply moved. Four years later, he went to the US on a Rockefeller Fund Scholarship. Shedding light on his US trip, Dalmia reveals, “There he came into contact with Barnett Newman and he saw how the surface could be treated in a way, which could become very expressive. In fact, his large colour field areas and the decisive division of the space that he realised in his work later came from this trip. After he returned, we began to see those diagonals begin to take place in his work with the Falling Figure being dynamised further with diagonal.”

Before he took up arts, Mehta worked as a film editor. In 1970, he made an experimental documentary Koodal, a Tamil word meaning ‘the meeting point’. Folk dancers, workers, traders and animals populate the film. The bull recurs in this work too as a slaughtered bull falling to the ground. Dalmia says that Mehta likened the bull to a man. “There was this feeling that man is like a bull who is caught in a cage. No freedom to be himself and who is constantly being flagellated.”

Blue Torso by Tyeb Mehta | Vadehra Art Gallery | STIRworld
Blue Torso (1976) Image Credit: Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

While his early works are raw and intense, some of them also seem to be dream-like to me. Explaining this phenomenon in his work, Dalmia says, “I feel when things are very stark and stare you in the face - for instance the Woman on Rickshaw, which struck him sharply when he was in Calcutta, where he saw men pulling rickshaws instead of animals. The level of poverty is such that a man has to pull a rickshaw himself like an animal and a well-off woman is sitting at the back. On the one hand, it hits you, and on the other, it hits you like a dream. Something is so stark that it couldn't be happening outside that it can only be happening in a dream. And in your dream, it is a nightmare”.

These images never left him, nor did the anguish.

Artist Tyeb Mehta was awarded with the Padma Bhushan in 2007 | Vadehra Art Gallery | STIRworld
Artist Tyeb Mehta was awarded with the Padma Bhushan in 2007 Image Credit: Courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery

(Watch Tyeb Mehta's film Koodal on YouTube).

Also read late artist's wife Sakina Mehta in exclusive chat with STIR to offer a glimpse into the man that Tyeb Mehta was.

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