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

Untitled (Mahishasura)

TYEB MEHTA (1925-2009)
Untitled (Mahishasura)
signed and dated 'Tyeb 96' (upper left); further signed and dated 'Tyeb 96' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
59 7/8 x 48 in. (152.1 x 120 cm.)
Painted in 1996
Art Today Gallery, New Delhi, 1996
Acqured from the above, thence by descent to the present owner
R. Hoskote et. al., Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 209 (illustrated)
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Damian Vesey
Damian Vesey

Lot Essay

The revered painter Tyeb Mehta spent the majority of his years contemplating the human condition. From his early works that depicted the suffering and helpless plight of the trussed bull in Mumbai's slaughter houses; to the falling figure hurtling toward its metaphorical abyss; to the trapped rickshaw puller who is 'caged in a vehicle that has become an aching extension of his body', his subjects have illustrated his sometimes disillusioned vision of the modern day world.

The present work is a seminal example from the Mahishasura series that Mehta painted in the 1990s. Heavily inspired by ancient mythology and Hindu literature, 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 which is simultaneously divine, human and beast named Mahisha who conquers both Gods and Demons alike. With his power ever-increasing, the Gods merge together to form Durga, a female deity whose undertaking is to destroy this Buffalo-Demon. Captivated by her beauty, Mahisha sets out to woo Durga, who at first encourages his advances only to later snub him, resulting in a battle which lasts thousands of years. Ultimately, Durga conquers Mahisha, marking the triumph of good over evil.

Mehta's fascination with the Mother Goddess began in the 1980s when he began to create depictions of a howling Kali. In the 1990s however, the traumatic images of death and slaughter associated with the negative forces of Kali slowly gave way to another facet of the Goddess: the positive energies of Durga. As such, the artist created multiple examples of dynamic visual representations of the mythic battle between the Mother Goddess, Durga, and the Buffalo-Demon, Mahisha. Although his work uses imagery which is ancient, the simplicity of his form, colour and line allow his works to remain powerfully modern.

In this captivating example, Mehta has chosen to focus on the faces of the Goddess and the Demon. The proximity of their bodies, and hence their faces, allows Mehta to pictorially explore his interest in a binary image. Unlike other versions of Mahishasura (the notable 1994 painting for example) where the Goddess and the Demon are distinctly differentiated by the use of two colours, here, Mehta presents them in the subtle shades of white. Locked in a cataclysmic struggle which will end in his death and her triumph, it becomes unclear where one ends and the other begins. With no clear separation the blurred lines and the faces appear to mesh together with a grotesque yet harmonious rhythm, their identities overlap and blur in symbiosis, thereby becoming virtual extensions of the other - after all each figure derives its value from the other's presence. Consequently, this raises the question of the extent and nature of their union; even though they are meant to represent the diametrically opposing forces of Good and Evil, they also play the roles of male and female. The battle, therefore, is also a carnal dance culminating in the "consummation of a sacred marriage [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 becom[ing] tropes of war and love." (R. Hoskote, "Images of Transcendence: Towards a New Reading of Tyeb Mehta's Art" in Tyeb Mehta Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 35-36)

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 juxtaposed 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, death and life, green and white, the work is charged with the visual and symbolic tension that is the hallmark of Mehta's work.

"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" in Art Heritage 9, New Delhi, 1989-90, pp. 76, 84

Tyeb Mehta was consistently inspired by the image of the bull, the iconography developing within his oeuvre from a literal interpretation of a trussed and quartered bull in the 1950s to key examples such as Bull's Head and his famed Mahishasura paintings from the 1990s, which show the advancement and inspiration of several influences that lead to the depiction of both Mahisha and Durga in Untitled (Mahishasura). As a recurrent theme in the artist's works, the bull is often depicted anthropomorphically or in its natural state. Although ordinarily a connotation of immense masculinity and strength, it is often represented as if victimised by circumstance, fate, and in some cases, much like in the present lot, with excessive pride and arrogance against the divine.

In Mahishasura, the simultaneity of perspective and figures, the juxtaposition of linear and volumed representation, and varying frontal and profiled angles of vision, are all stylistic devices which instantaneously conjure up images of Pablo Picasso's pivotal work, Guernica. Just as Mehta was inspired by the bull, Picasso too regularly depicted multiple forms of the bull and most often the mythological creature, the Minotaur. The similarities between Mehta and Picasso reflect the dialogue between artists around the 1950s and 1960s and the strong impact Minimalism, Abstraction and Cubism had on Mehta. Although the symbolism of the bull and the horse in Guernica remain ambiguous, the bull in Mehta's works cannot help but symbolise the artist's attempt to shed light on the culture and predicaments faced by the Indian subcontinent and its people, becoming in essence a symbol of the pain and struggle, yet simultaneously of survival.

Unlike Guernica which focused on a specific event, Mehta imbues his figures with a quiet dignity as he immortalises them in a timeless spatial expanse; his works remain devoid of any specific context. The struggle between brute instinct and humanising tendencies are reduced to a formal geometrical arrangement invoking space through colour and line, which although simplified in form, can show a ripple of flesh, or a fold of muscle, the culmination of which is apparent in Untitled (Mahishasura).

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" in Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 27-29)

Needless to say, the myth in Tyeb Mehta's Untitled (Mahishasura) serves a symbolic significance. 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. By choosing to depict the moment whereby Mahisha and Durga become one, 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, resembling a classical sculpture in the creamy tones of marble.

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