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VIVAN SUNDARAM (B. 1943)
Property of a Prominent Private collector
TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)

Mahishasura

Details
TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
Mahishasura
signed 'Tyeb '94' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
59¼ x 47 3/8 in. (150.5 x 120.3 cm.)
Painted in 1994
Provenance
Formerly in the collection of The Times of India Group, New Delhi
Christie's New York, 19 September 2002, lot 326
Christie's New York, 16 September 2009, lot 533
Literature
Celebration: Tyeb Mehta, exhibition catalogue, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 1996, unpaginated (illustrated)
R. Hoskote et. al., Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 35 and 207 (illustrated)
Y. Dalmia, Journeys: Four Generations of Indian Artists in their own Words, New Delhi, 2011, vol. 1, front cover (illustrated)
Exhibited
New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, Celebration: Tyeb Mehta, February - March 1996

Lot Essay

The present painting from 1994 is a seminal work from the Mahishasura series that Tyeb Mehta painted in the 1990s. Ranjit Hoskote said of this pivotal period, "Mehta appears to have returned to the theme of the Mother Goddess which has preoccupied him. In these paintings, the Devi emerges in one of her most potent and impressive forms: that of Durga Mahishasura-mardini, mounted on her lion, locked in the cataclysmic struggle with the buffalo-demon Mahisha which will end in his death and her triumph" (R. Hoskote, 'The Alchemical Sacrifice', Tyeb Mehta: Paintings, Vadehra Art Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 1998, unpaginated). Hindu mythological themes are prevalent in Tyeb's later work. Mehta here borrows from the 5th century text, Markandeya Purana, and the traditional Hindu tale of the Warrior Goddess Durga slaying the Buffalo Demon, Mahishai. Mahishasura recounts the legend whereby the Brahmin Demon-King Rambha produces an invincible son through his union with a she-buffalo. What results is an amalgamated creature - simultaneously sacred and profane, human and beast - named Mahisha. With the threat of his ever-increasing powers, the gods merge together to form Durga, a female deity whose undertaking is to seduce and destroy this Buffalo-Demon. The battle lasts thousands of years and ends with, Durga victorious.

In this captivating composition, the proximity and palette of the wrestling intertwined bodies allow Mehta to pictorially explore his interest in a binary image. Mehta's carefully composed demon and goddess are distinctly differentiated by the use the two complementary colours, opposites, red and green which act to contrast and reinforce one another. Despite this contrast it becomes unclear where one figure ends and the other begins while these two titans are entwined in battle. There is a grotesque yet harmonious rhythm, as their identities overlap and blur in symbiosis, thereby becoming virtual extensions of the other - as opposites, each figure derives its value from the other's presence. "The beautiful goddess and lumbering demon are both, after all, primeval deities of the earth: while she embodies the sacred life-force that makes the land fertile and waters generous, he symbolises the mire and the slush, the material of the earth, through which her electricity must pass before it can fulfil its potentiality [...] the battle between Devi and Mahishasura is a war to death but it is also more crucially, the consummation of a sacred marriage." (R. Hoskote, 'The Alchemical Sacrifice', Tyeb Mehta: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, 1998, unpaginated) This raises the question of the extent and nature of their union; even though they are meant to represent the forces of good and evil, they also play the roles of male and female. The battle, therefore, is also a carnal dance whereby, "the bodies of the protagonists slip and knot over one another, entwined as though in some exalted act of yogic origami; the disembodiment, the torsion and the inflammation become tropes of war and love." (R. Hoskote, 'Images of Transcendence: Towards a New Reading of Tyeb Mehta's Art', Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 35-36) Tyeb, distilling the highly complex religious themes of this story to a single frame, has recast Mahisha as a sympathetic figure in a seductive embrace with Durga. In his interpretation, both figures are besotted and both fully aware that she will vanquish him. Whilst he destined to be slain by Durga, Mahisha's prior acts may also be seen in a self-sacrificial light, a metaphor for the spiritual transformation that comes as a result of union with the divine.

Tyeb Mehta's Mahishasura serves a symbolic significance. As the bodies writhe both in agony and attraction, compassion and destruction become interchangeable, Mehta's stark formal treatment of dismembered figures with arms flailing, the fractured picture plane with contrasted flat areas of colour, and the emphasised diagonals heighten the impact and awareness of violence and suffering. Dramatic in its juxtaposition of opposites: good and evil, male and female, life and death, green and red, the work is charged with the visual and symbolic tension that is the hallmark of Mehta's work. It becomes a reflection of one's self-identity, calling for the sacrifice and renewal of one's spirituality, of a self that has lost coherence and in turn has become fragmented. Mehta calls on our quest to examine existence and life's struggles to create the perfect balance between good and evil. What ensues is an inherent tension through the multiplicity of intersections between society, its processes and man's inner psyche. In doing so, the ancient myth thus becomes an eternal battle, suspended in time and space, a perennial performance into which the viewer is enticed. After all "the triumph of the goddess is not, in fact, assured; it is always possible that, in their animated struggle, the demon may overcome and absorb the goddess [...] the artist seems to ask; [Tyeb Mehta] invites us to risk our fragile sense of self and leap into the centre of the fatal strife." (R. Hoskote, 'The Alchemical Sacrifice', Tyeb Mehta: Paintings, Vadehra Art Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 1998, unpaginated)

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