Tyeb Mehta, lauded as one of India's greatest artists, began his artistic career as a filmmaker. Howener he was still pulled towards painting after developing affinities for the Progressive Arts Group who drew stylistic inspiration from Western Modernism while re-interpreting distinctly Indian themes. Mehta took numerous cues from Western artists and his pre-1970s works owe a stylistic debt to Francis Bacon. However, his 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, R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images, Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 342.
Shortly after Mehta abandoned his expressionistic painting 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 80s, however, it slowly begins to become less obtrusive as Mehta's style matures. According to Art critic, Ranjit Hoskote, " the diagonal leads directly to Tyeb's images of the 1980s and 1990s 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).
Hindu mythological themes are prevalent in Mehta's later work. The 5th century text, Markandeya Purana, relates the traditional Hindu tale of the Warrior Goddess Durga slaying the Buffalo Demon, Mahisha. However, Mehta's interpretation brings to the forefront the ambiguous dichotomies between the masculine and feminine, the divine and mortal, and the human and the bestial, while also conveying a larger Liebestod theme of consummation and destruction. The twisting figures depicted in diagonal planes overlap and blur into each other in a manner that is both violent and overtly sexual. Hoskote notes, "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." (Tyeb Mehta: Paintings , Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, Winter 1998, unpaginated.) Mehta, 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 Mehta's view, both figures are besotted and both fully aware that she will vanquish him. Eventually after 10,000 years, Mahisha is slain by Durga. However Mahisha's prior acts may also be seen in a self-sacrificial light, and as a general metaphor for the spiritual transformation that comes as a result of union with the divine.