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 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 world. His stark formal treatment of dismembered figures with arms flailing, the fractured picture plane with juxtaposed flat areas of color, and the emphazised diagonals highten the impact and awareness of violence and suffering.
The present work is part of the 'Mahishasura' series that Mehta painted in the 1990s. The series offered a dynamic visual representation of the mythic battle between the Mother Goddess, Durga, and the Buffalo-Demon, Mahisha. Mehta's fascination with the Mother Goddess began in the 1980s in his depictions of a howling Kali. In the 1990s, however, another facet of the Goddess emerged in his work: that of Durga. The traumatic images of death and slaughter associated with the negative forces of Kali have given way to the positive energies of Durga. Needless to say, the myth in Mehta's work serves a symbolic significance. Who is Mahisha and what is the Evil he represents? The ancient myth thus becomes a timeless battle.
The legend of Mahishasura has its roots in early Hindu literature. The Brahmin Demon-King, Rambha, gleans a boon from Agni. He begets an invincible son through his union with a She-Buffalo. The result is Mahisha - a composite of the divine, human and bestial. Mahisha conquers Gods and Demons alike. Sovereign of the world, he is surfeited with excess. The Gods, in trepidation, merge together to form Durga, in order to destroy this Buffalo Demon. Her beauty captivates Mahisha, who sets out to woo her. Appearing at first to respond, Durga later spurns him. The result is a battle, which lasts thousands of years.
Ultimately, however, Durga vanquishes him, marking the triumph of Good over Evil. (Kamala Ganesh, Tyeb Mehta - Paintings, New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, 1998.)
Here, 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, where the Goddess and the Demon are distinctly differentiated by the use of two colors, here, Mehta eerily presents them in the same color. Where does one end and the other begin? The lines are blurred and there is no clear separation, as the faces appear to meld together with a grotesque yet harmonious rhythm, thereby becoming virtual extensions of the other. This also 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." (Ranjit Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta - Paintings, New Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery, 1998.)
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.