Tyeb Mehta, lauded as one of India's greatest artists, began his artistic career as a filmmaker but soon became a painter after developing affinities to the Progressive Arts Group which drew stylistic inspiration from Western Modernism while re-interpreting distinctly Indian themes. Mehta took numerous cues from Western artists and his pre-1970's works owe a stylistic debt to Francis Bacon.
Since his early years as an artist, Tyeb Mehta has used the canvas to express images that illustrate the struggles of contemporary society. From the early images of the trussed bull that show the helpless plight of the animal in Mumbai's slaughter houses; to the falling figure hurtling toward its metaphorical abyss; to the trapped rickshaw puller who cannot escape the vehicle that becomes an extension of himself, his paintings reflect his own disillusionment with the world around him. His unique formal treatment of the canvas only serves to heighten the impact of these images. The sight of dismembered figures with flailing limbs set against a fractured picture plane serve as a glaring reminder for the viewer to consider and address the violence and suffering that is both around and within. As Keshav Malik notes: "His is a confrontation with human dignity, a true meditation on the murder of the human spirit" (Keshav Malik, 'As a Critic Looks at it', Lalit Kala Contemporary 37, New Delhi, 1991, p. 40.)
Mehta's work underwent several epiphanies following a year-long stay in New York on a Rockefeller Grant in 1968. His harshly textured impressionistic brushstrokes were transformed into a new painting mode with structured expanses of color and a conscious two-dimensionality focused more on line than contour.
"My encounter with minimalist art was a revelation. I had seen minimalist reproductions previously but I hadn't seen the works in the original. Had I not seen the original, I might have dismissed many of them as gimmicks just another tricky idea. But when I saw my first original [Barnett Newman] for example, I had such an incredible emotional response to it. The canvas had no image but the way the paint had been applied, the way the scale had been worked out the whole area proportioned. There was something about it which is inexpressible. Let's say there must have been a point of saturation in my work before I went to New York, which my confrontation with the contemporary art scene brought to the surface. I was open to new ideas. About the same time, I became interested in using pure color. Normally brush marks suggest areas of directions. I wanted to avoid all this to bring elements down to such a minimal level that the image alone would be sufficient to speak for itself."
Interview by Nikki Ty-Tomkins Seth, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images, Exchanges, R. Hoskote, ed., New Delhi, 2005, p. 342.
Shortly after Mehta abandoned his expressionistic paintings style, he began work on a series in which each painting's composition was built around a thick oblique line running right to left, oftentimes rendered over his figures. In these works, the diagonal allows a single figure to adopt different forms on each side, giving Mehta the flexibility to explore different means of representation in a single painting. This segmentation of the canvas is continued in works from the early 80's however, it slowly begins to become less obtrusive as Mehta's style matures. According to Art Historian, Ranjit Hoskote, " the diagonal leads directly to Tyeb's images of the 1980's and 1990's 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." (Ranjit Hoskote, Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005)
This particular painting is an important transitional piece for the artist who has himself mentioned that though it pre-figures his obsession with the themes of the Goddess Durga, the work demonstrates that he was grappling with the formal and psychological elements leading to his famed series of works as far back as the early 1980's. The presence of the two intermingled women in the work suggests the tangled figures of his later Mahisasura series where, in his interpretation of the Hindu epic story of Mahisha and Durga, the warrior goddess, woman, bull and demon, become entangled in a cosmic dance where they are nearly indistinguishable. This painting also demonstrates an important turning point in Mehta's work by illustrating a growing complexity in composition and the facility of line which makes Mehta's works masterpieces of Indian Modernism.