TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)


TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
acrylic on canvas; diptych
78 x 60 in. (198 x 152.4 cm.) each; 78 x 119¾ in. (198 x 304 cm.) overall
Painted in 2005-2007
Tyeb Mehta Family Collection
Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, exhibition catalogue, Vadehra Art Gallery, 2011, frontispiece and pp. 48-49 (illustrated)
H. Cotter, 'Tyeb Mehta: Painter of Emerging India, Dies at 84,' The New York Times, July 4, 2009 (illustrated)
S. Sengupta, 'Indian Artist Enjoys His World Audience,' The New York Times, January 24, 2006 (illustrated)
New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, January - February 2011

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Lot Essay

For me the trussed bull is a compulsive image. [...] It served as a metaphor for the violent struggles one experiences in life: [...] the bull is a powerful animal and when its legs are tied and it's thrown down, it is an assault on life itself." (Y. Dalmia, 'Tyeb Mehta: Beyond Narrative Painting', Art Heritage 9, New Delhi, 1989-90, p. 76, 84)

The Bulls diptych is Tyeb Mehta's final completed work that the artist embarked upon during the last three years of his life, and in essence serves as the culmination of his vision on the human condition through his use of a specific vehicle (or vahana) of the bull animal. The monumentality in size and scale of this work further allows the apotheosis of the animal to embody Mehta's entire development of the iconography throughout his multi-decade artistic career that spans the genres of painting, sculpture and film. Whether anthropomorphized or depicted in its natural state, the bull, ordinarily a connotation of immense masculinity and strength, is often depicted by Mehta as victimized by circumstance, fate, and in some cases hubris against the divine. However, Mehta imbues his figures with a quiet dignity as he immortalizes them in his works in a timeless spatial expanse. In a way, Mehta's empathy for the lowly creature as a symbol for the downtrodden exposes a duality of pathos and exultance that in this most mature and spartan work reveals Mehta's enduring quest for a state of perfection.

Bulls may also be seen as the final visual 'exegesis' of the buffalo demon Mahishasura and the conclusion of Mehta's vision. The synthesized image is deconstructed in favor of pure minimalism; the color is but the deep brown color of the buffalo. The photograph from the previous page depicts the artist in front of the work in progress in 2006. According to G. Shahane, "[When Mehta] began to employ flat, bright planes of colours. To this day, he prefers pure colours and doesn't use many layers, so the first application is important, it has to come out right." Shahane further marvels that Mehta's laborious technique for his larger scaled works came with much arduous effort. "Seeing his tiny working space, I asked how he'd managed to paint that massive canvas [Celebrations]. This is what I gathered: his studio was only large enough to hold one panel of the triptych. His neighbour, who owned a bigger flat, would take his family out every weekend. With his permission, each Sunday afternoon, Tyeb would have the three panels of Celebration moved to the flat next door so he could see them side by side. Then he'd paint for the rest of the week on the basis of that memory. Since his work is so much about balance, hearing how he painted Celebration made his achievement all the more astonishing." (http://girishshahane.blogspot.com/2009/07/tyeb-mehta-july-26-1925-july -2-2009.html) The Bulls here demonstrates the herculean effort the artist undertook with line and form to achieve this absolute purity, his ultimate battle and victory as an artist. The bull has thus morphed into a meta-representation of itself, a pure icon.
This last work by Tyeb Mehta has been greatly influenced by the writings of Milan Kundera as well as the words of Italo Calvino's (1923-85) posthumously published work, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), both of whom were much admired by the artist. His wife, Sakina, diligently read Calvino to him repeatedly as he pondered over his own mortality in front of the work. The first memo is entitled "Lightness": "Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times - noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring - belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery of rusty old cars." [...] "Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don't mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future." (I. Calvino, Six Memos, 1988) Calvino further speaks of the process of filmmaking "as the mental cinema" that never stops projecting images before our mind's eye. Mehta fully relates to this and chooses a double frame, like a condensed film-strip, coming full circle from his beginnings as a film maker.

According to Y. Dalmia, "In a lifetime's work, viewed as a process, it could be said that Tyeb achieved on the one hand an articulation of pain and struggle and a saga of survival, and at the same time a painterly language which parallels reality with equal resilience. The increasing debilitation of political and civic life around him was witnessed with a restrained economy of line which conveyed both the pain and transcending of it as an interlocked movement of form." (Y. Dalmia, 'Metamorphosis: From Mammal to Man,' Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 27-29)

The ensuing illustrations accompanying this catalogue note are but a small capsule of Tyeb Mehta's iconography of the bull over his lifetime beginning with a literal interpretation of a trussed and quartered bull in the 1950s and ending with his famed Mahishasura painting from the 1990s, this visual retrospective underlies the 'repertoire' of images that lead to the construction of the Bulls. For instance, note the treatment of limbs and haunches in the early 1950s Bull drawing that are compositionally repeated to large scale in the present work demonstrating in both an evolutionary process that has re-worked the bold imagery of Mehta's youth.

In 1970, Mehta made a brief return to his first career, through his award-winning film, Koodal (written and directed by Tyeb Mehta, 35mm, B/W film, 16min 16 sec). The film takes its title from the Tamil word for "congregation," which alludes to Mehta's perspectives of Mumbai. A city of great diversity, Mumbai, in his eyes, was a place of congregation; it was a place where everyone, from all walks of life, came together and intermingled. Mehta filled this film with imagery that appears disjointed; however, it is through his subtle, underlying theme, that the film exhibits a clever coherence. From sexually engaged cattle, to a hijra or transgender prostitute, to city crowds, to himself, and to a slaughtered bull - the artist carefully balances and expresses the complex emotions and life-rhythms associated with Mumbai. Much like his painted works, his film follows in the trajectory of his oeuvre by engaging in metaphors. The trussed bulls of the Bombay slaughterhouses exemplify for Mehta the conditions of indignity and constriction in Indian everyday life.

"We would recycle used images in a new context that changes their meaning, the image themselves develop their own implicit potentialities - around each image others come into being forming a field of confrontation - no longer visual but also conceptual which enters my deliberate intent to give order and sense" (Italo Calvino quoted by Tyeb Mehta in his notes In Parenthesis, excerpted from Y. Dalmia, 'Metamorphosis: From Mammal to Man,' Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011, p. 29)

Tyeb Mehta's Bulls diptych is essentially a visual epitaph of the artist's quest to express the grandest of ideas about existence and life's struggles, as transformed and distilled by a lifetime of his artistic vision. It is his final and definitive achievement.


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