Since his early years as an artist, Tyeb Mehta has used 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, 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 a metaphorical stage for the dramatization of modern man's sociological and psychological concerns, Mehta's iconic Rickshaw series underscores the anonymity and isolation of the common labourers. The social detachment and suffering of the rickshaw puller is suggested through the prominent presence of the rickshaw itself, which has come to exist as a natural extension of the man's body, harnessing him against the outside world. "The rickshaw is not a simple means of transport but a sign of bondage, and the slave sitting near it is naked Man, staring into meaningless space, enduring his existence." (N. Ezekiel, Tyeb Mehta, Kunika-Chemould Art Centre Exhibition Catalogue, New Delhi, March 1970)
In 1983, Mehta was invited to be artist-in-residence at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan for two years. His experiences in Kolkata are indelibly linked to the further development of the rickshaw theme. The city is one of the last bastions where human rickshaw-pullers still operate in the winding inner-city alleyways bowed by the necessity of their labours and yet surviving from obsolescence.