'They snare you into a search. Those unindividual faces that seem benign or sad, those heave limbs that oscillate in mute gesture, those body postures that combine both elegance and awkwardness, they hold you captive with their teasing configurations. Clear, brilliant, tantalizingly visual, almost like blown up cameos, in the centre of their impact they carry a message for the heart.' (K.G. Subramanyam, Celebration: Tyeb Mehta, New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, 1996.)
Tyeb Mehta has spent the majority of his years as a painter contemplating the human condition. From his early works that depicted the suffering and helpless plight of the trussed bull in Bombay'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 often disillusioned vision of the world we live in. His unique formal treatment of the canvas to arrive at the final images only serve to heighten the impact of his subjects. Dismembered figures with arms flailing, the continuing use of the fractured picture plane with juxtaposed flat areas of color, and the slash of his diagonal dissecting the canvas, jar us into a reality where we are forced to consider and address the violence and suffering that is around us as well as question whether it is within ourselves.
At the end of the 1980's and in the 1990's, the Mother Goddess began to appear frequently in Mehta's works. Be it Kali 'glutted with carnality and massacre' as the 'all-encompassing figure who could destroy the world but also find means of containing the violence,' or Durga, in her role as slayer of the demon Mahishasura, Celebration with its all female dramatis personae is a befitting extension to the artist's oeuvre.
Celebration, like the Santiniketan triptych done a decade earlier, draws inspiration from the Charak festival, the Spring festival of the Santhals. However, unlike the Santiniketan triptych that juxtaposes life and death, the present work focuses on the celebratory aspects of the festival and life itself. The painting marks not so much a shift in emphasis but a culmination of an experience. Images of torture and carnage, while not forgotten are instead transcended. They form the very stuff from which this 'Celebration' derives meaning: as in alchemy, the dross has become gold.
A historical dance, rooted in space and time, has here been transformed into an Eternal celebration of the Present. Who are these women? Are they common victims bonded together by a deeper link? They resemble the 'peasant-cultivator-laborer, a prototype that has been placed in deadpan stances of beaten down melancholia.' (Roshan Shahani, Celebration: Tyeb Mehta, New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, 1996.) 'They have overcome the arrears of famine and flood. These people are fugitives, refugees from devastated towns who have traveled here with their harrowing burden of nightmare...' ('The Colors of Abandon', The Times of India, Mumbai, 17 March 1996.) However, within the painting they become emblematic of a greater significance. The dancers are simultaneously 'Any Man' and 'Every Man', and their precarious victory, is a triumph for mankind. 'Can they forget what they have endured? Can they forget the manic razor of the riot, the visitation of terror in the in the crowded street, the spilling of blood glimpsed from the half open window? In India, every festivity includes an edge of panic; every effulgence is shadowed by memories of torture. This is a dance of life: its participants have shed fear and embraced the vulnerability of nakedness. They are no longer creatures of destructive forces, but have translated rage into ritual.' (The Times of India, ibid.)
Although there are three separate panels, there is a feeling of continuity achieved through the unbroken areas of color that extend across the edges of each panel. More importantly, the link is enhanced by the deceptively random arms of the women that appear to be splayed in wanton abandon, but in reality transcend the superficial divisions of the canvas and reach out to each other. The throbbing vibration of stark colors mirrors the momentum of the dancers themselves: they clash in conflict, yet run together, part of a united gesture. 'Tyeb calls for the strength, the self containment of a closely bonded and autonomous unit of life.' (Roshan Shahani, ibid.)
Yet, Mehta is not a making a dogmatic assertion- the painting is poignant as much for what it does not say, as for what it does. Any assertion of joy is by nature fragile, and our awareness of future disquiet is just another facet of the uplifting abandonment of the dance. 'But the sinuousness of the dance has not erased its origins in the writhings of struggle; the archaic signs of sacrifice inhabit the carnival yet...Among those feet, charged with their hypnotic rhythm, yet alert to the caprices of human behavior, the dancing goat remains a possible victim, alive but keenly aware of itself as a symbol of wounding and sacrifice. For the goat, as for the dancers, the sky is home and tabernacle for the moment, stolen from the unforgiving register of time. This sky is a backdrop to epiphany, a canopy spread over the excesses of desire but can we predict when it might close like a colossal eyelid, descend over our works and days like the treacherous silk curtain that it is?' (The Times of India, ibid.)
So, the dancers seem to walk on a 'knife-edge.' Ever shifting, almost seething, with faces intent on private sorrows past and future, they are yet exalted in the throes of action. Theirs is a moment in time, which never ends. Music and rhythmic gesture serve as the threshold to this subliminal experience. If you concentrate and strain your ears you can almost hear the rhythmic drumming and 'Uccello-like pattern of feet' and the mesmerizing chants of the women involved in a bacchanalian ritual of triumph. 'It is fuelled by a suppressed and contradictory energy - it says everything and it says nothing at all except for the poise of a drunken dance, its lurching enervated rhythm'. As Roshan Shahani says, 'A painting without catharsis, a drama where the performance never ends. A great grieving is constantly being secreted from the wall. Therefore, there is a mounting, accumulating hope, a breakaway joy, that fire in the wind that we can never possess, that hypnotizes the seeker, entranced, stranded at the turning points of Celebration.' (Roshan Shahani, ibid.)