Tyeb Mehta, lauded as one of India's greatest modern masters, began his artistic career as a filmmaker but soon became a painter after developing affinities to the Progressive Artists' Group which drew stylistic inspiration from Western Modernism while re-interpreting distinctly Indian themes. Simultaneous perspectives, the juxtaposition of linear and voluminous representation, and varying frontal and profiled angles of vision, are all stylistic devices associated with Pablo Picasso and are reminiscent of his pivotal work, Guernica. Picasso too regularly depicted multiple forms of the bull and most often the mythological creature, the Minotaur. The similarities between Mehta and Picasso reflect the dialogue between artists around the 1950s and 1960s and the strong impact Abstraction and Cubism had on Mehta. His most significant artistic epiphanies followed 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 seen in this painting, 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 colour. 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." (Artist statement, Interview by N. Ty-Tomkins Seth, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images, Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 342)
Painted in 2000, this painting of a falling, flailing bull with its marble tones appears almost sculptural, a late monument or homage to Tyeb Mehta's iconic idiom of the bull, a theme Mehta systematically revisited and reinvigorated. Tyeb Mehta was consistently inspired by the iconography of the bull, the literal interpretation of a trussed and quartered bull which he first depicted in the 1950s. This painting may be seen as a late deconstructed exegesis of the buffalo demon Mahishasura from the traditional Hindu tale of the Warrior Goddess Durga slaying the Buffalo Demon, Mahishasura. Mehta's final completed work was an iconic diptych entitled Bulls. The bull was a personal fascination and an allegorical muse that became a malleable vehicle for artistic and philosophical expression. P. Karunakar in the essay, 'Tyeb Mehta: Abstraction and Image', highlights that the imagery of the bull is a crucial prism into Tyeb Mehta's worldview and art. The trussed bulls of the Bombay slaughterhouses exemplify for Mehta the conditions of indignity and constriction in Indian everyday life. In one sequence of his 1970 award-winning film, Koodal, Mehta juxtaposes footage of corraled dusty bulls with meathooks and closes with an ironic shot of Nandi taken at the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. This bull, however appears upturned and falling, drawing upon Mehta's second iconic idiom, that of the falling figure. Mehta combines these two essential sources to illuminate the sorrows and tragic plight of the common man.
This painting serves as the apotheosis of his vision on the human condition through his symbolic use of the tumbling trussed beast. Partially anthropomorphized, this bull, ordinarily a connotation of immense masculinity and strength, is depicted by Mehta as victimized by circumstance, fate, and damnation. However, Mehta imbues his figures with a quiet dignity as he immortalizes them in his works in a timeless spatial expanse. Bull can be seen as a visual epitaph of the artist's quest to express the grandest of ideas about existence and life's struggles, as transformed and distilled by a lifetime of his artistic vision. According to Y. Dalmia, "In a lifetime's work, viewed as a process, it could be said that Tyeb achieved on the one hand an articulation of pain and struggle and a saga of survival, and at the same time a painterly language which parallels reality with equal resilience. The increasing debilitation of political and civic life around him was witnessed with a restrained economy of line which conveyed both the pain and transcending of it as an interlocked movement of form." (Y. Dalmia, 'Metamorphosis: From Mammal to Man,' Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 27-29)