The Falling Figure, a subject Tyeb Mehta often revisited, was born out of a traumatic childhood memory of witnessing the violent death of a man during the bloody riots that followed the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. This event had a lasting impact upon the artist’s oeuvre that was galvanised when he participated in a government project that took him to the frontlines of the Indo-Pakistan War in the 1960s. It was at this time that Mehta first explored the idiom of the falling figure in his painting, earning him a Gold Medal at the inaugural Indian Triennale, New Delhi, in 1968. Soon, his depictions of these figures, frozen in moments of free-fall, became representative of existential anxiety and fear in the face of violence and tragedy.
In the current iteration, painted in 2002, Mehta propels this trope further, pairing the human figure with that of a bird to clearly manifest the sense of angst, helplessness and fear that he continued to feel as communal violence flared up once again in Gujarat earlier that year. “For over a decade Mehta’s concern had been with mythologising the tormented existence of individuals which had lent grace and an utter gravity to his forms. In his later works he moved towards the flight of the bird and made it lunge downwards. The falling bird replaces the human being as if beginning the cycle anew. As he stated, ‘I did the first drawing of the bird as far back as 1983 but as I went along I generally began to feel that the bird always flies so why not make it fall – it’s a contradiction in terms. The bird can be made without bringing in flying because that has a different kind of body-lifting movement. Falling means you have more or less given up. It’s an interesting idea because I work on fragmentation. It’s one of my preoccupations.’” (Y. Dalmia, Metamorphosis: From Mammal to Man’, Tyeb Mehta, Triumph of Vision, New Delhi, 2011, p. 25)
This painting, both deeply personal and politically poignant, distills complex psychological and metaphysical notions of suffering, violence and trauma with the economy of line, form and colour characteristic of Mehta’s work. Here, the entwined avian and human figures draw perhaps from literary characters like Icarus or Phaethon, who failed in their quests of flight and union with divinity. Representing the fall of man from grace owing to his own wrongdoings and hubris, these interpretations emanate from the artist’s strong affinities for Western art and literature. However, the figure of the bird may also draw from Vedic literature, in which Mehta was equally versed. Whether it is Garuda who assists the gods in their battles between good and evil, or Jatayu who battled Ravana and sacrificed himself to save Sita from abduction, this painting of plummeting figures fits the imagery of “doomed heroism” that has always been a mainstay of the artist’s work. (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images, Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 42)
An exceptional moment of synergy between Mehta’s artistic, political and social concerns, this image draws its power from a cinematic sense of suspense, freezing the action in an eternal moment that allows the protagonists to transcend their loss of control and appear almost serene in the face of a seemingly unavoidable destiny. Although this painting echoes the power and thrust of Georg Baselitz’s Adler series, imposing paintings of plunging eagles, Mehta’s cinematic vision is relatively pared down in terms of form and colour. Apart from his early training in camerawork and film editing, the sharp lines and segregated planes of saturated pigment in this painting also reveal the deep influence Mehta’s year in New York on a Rockefeller Fund Fellowship in 1968, where he encountered the work of artists like Barnett Newman, had on the formation of his mature pictorial vocabulary. In this painting, the artist’s twisted figures also pay homage to Francis Bacon, whose expressionistic art Mehta encountered even before that, when he spent some years in London in the early 1960s. Comparisons can be made to Bacon’s iconic painting Two Figures (1975) both in the smooth application of paint suggestive of polished marble, and in the fused figures hurtling downward.
Falling Figure with Bird is a tour de force and truly modern painting, whose anxieties and social narratives resonate as much today as they did when Mehta committed them to canvas. As such, Mehta grapples with the fall of man as an everlasting condition. Our descent is continuous yet never fulfilled, and hope remains eternal. If this painting is read as a parallel to the destiny of mankind, Mehta’s entwined figures represent a critical moment, immobilised in a moment between damnation or absolution.
“Eventually in these images which currently inhabit Tyeb’s imagination, we return to the vexed and vexatious figure, creature of crisis and bearer of epiphany; and we see, through the many appearances it takes on and casts off, the true lesson of persistence. For the avatar (the animal incarnation of man) is manifestly the trope of survival and continuity, of optimism; it is the vehicle of the future, the token of redemption […] The dream of transcendence that lies at the heart of Tyeb Mehta’s art does not reveal itself easily; he makes certain that we must work strenuously to reach it, sharing with him, every inch of the way, in the work of art.” (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images, Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 42)