What strikes one immediately in these works, is the strictly formal geometrical arrangement, or invocation of space-colour, and the line embodying the figure pulled apart like a doll and put together again - laid flat, defining, so to speak, the iconographic area... What appears at first glance as a formal exercise in relating line to colour on a flat plane suddenly becomes very disturbing.
Tyeb Mehta's painting from 1999, Untitled (Falling Bull) is a virtuosic celebration of the iconic subjects and symbols that embody the oeuvre of this modern master. The trussed falling bull is the protagonist set upon a rickshaw, seemingly spiralling out of control towards cataclysm. This magnum opus is a rare example of the unification of Mehta's often separate images, distilled through elegant economy of line and colour to cohabit a common canvas. These protagonists are iconographic symbols that Mehta selected; "[...] images which haunted him, burning themselves deep into his mental circuitry [...] these obsessional images, autobiographical in import, gradually gained significance as Tyeb externalised them, reflecting on them, and allowed them to shimmer against the wider canvas of society." (R. Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta, Images and Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 14)
At the centre of the artist's medley of icons is the rickshaw. In 1983, Mehta was invited to be artist-in-residence at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, for two years. This invitation was timely, since his stay in Santiniketan allowed him to recuperate from a serious illness, and the cultural ambience surrounding Santiniketan was inspiring. It was during this residency that he painted Figure on Rickshaw. Mehta's experiences in Calcutta are indelibly linked to the development of the rickshaw theme; the city is one of the last bastions where human rickshaw-pullers still operate. Rickshaws are a perennial presence along the the dusty roads and winding inner-city alleyways of Santiniketan and Kolkata to this day.
Mehta, however, chose to depict the rickshaw not as a representation of travel or liberation, but as a symbol of struggle and subjugation for its captive puller. "[...] The rickshaw- puller, the yoke [...] the cart a burden he cannot cast off: in the torsion of frictive, blade-sharp planes, no one can tell where flesh passes into wood and metal, where the limbs end and machine begins." (R. Hoskote Tyeb Mehta, Images and Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 3) Mehta uses the rickshaw as a metaphorical stage for the dramatisation of modern man's sociological and psychological concerns. "The rickshaw is not a simple means of transport but a sign of bondage." (N. Ezekiel, Tyeb Mehta, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 1970, unpaginated) As such, Mehta's iconic Rickshaw series underscores the anonymity and isolation of the common labourer.
Here, instead of a rickshaw-puller, Mehta depicts the bull, writhing on the vehicle - another image from his visual vocabulary. The trajectory of this modern master's career can be traced through the constant reinvention of this beast in his work. He was consistently inspired by the iconography of the bull, from the literal interpretation of a trussed and quartered bull in the 1950s to his famed series of Mahishasura paintings from the 1990s. In 1970, Mehta even made a brief return to his former career as a filmmaker, directing the award-winning film, Koodal, filled with disjointed yet powerful imagery, none more so than a scene of a slaughtered bull. Much like his painted works, this film follows in the trajectory of his oeuvre by engaging in metaphors. Mehta was vociferous about the bull's significance, stating, "There was a municipality place at Kennedy Bridge [...] where these cows and buffaloes used to be caught and brought. I used to go and sketch there. Then from there I moved to the slaughterhouse at Bandra near Masjid. Actually I shot three minutes of my film there. Those three minutes are the most poignant sequence in my film. It's an image which is very near to my mental make-up. The bull is a powerful animal and when its legs are tied down and its thrown down it's an assault on life itself." (Artist statement, Y. Dalmia, 2011, p. 13)
The trussed bulls of the Bombay slaughterhouses futilely struggle, powerless in the face of the inevitable, and exemplify for Mehta the conditions of indignity and constriction in Indian everyday life. This painting is a monument to this sentiment, the animal struggling and contorted on a rickshaw, caught in a crash. Mehta first explored the idiom of the falling figure in the mid-1960s. This charged trope earned him the Gold medal at the inaugural Indian Triennale in New Delhi in 1968. The falling figure's potency was forged from a traumatic memory from Mehta's childhood during the Partition riots of 1947. This impossibly mutated protagonist with its flailing superfluous limbs lays atop the rickshaw, at once human, deity and animal. "The silhouetted minimal forms of the bulls seem to convey the turbulent, torrid, gushing movement from birth to death." (Y. Dalmia, 2011, p. 27)
The brilliant sophistication of this painting is derived not only from the potency of Mehta's quintissential icons, but in his elegant distillation of them into their essential elements. Speaking about his paintings, Edward Saywell of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts notes, "Like Francis Bacon, with whom he has been compared, Mehta trod the fine line dividing abstraction and representation. Although never entirely abstract, the radical purity of his forms and simple delineation reflect a pivotal visit he made in 1968 to New York. There, he saw firsthand the minimalist practice of many of his American contemporaries and, perhaps more profoundly for his own development, the paintings of Barnett Newman. The latter's monochromatic fields of color and strong vertical dividing lines proved critical for Mehta's own pictorial vocabulary." (Bharat Ratna! Jewels of Modern Indian Art, exhibition catalogue, Boston, 2009-10, p. 11) In the present painting the sumptuous plains of colour are dissected by the subtle diagonals of the rickshaw handles, while the abstract use of flattened form and segregated expanses of colour create a harmony, a frozen moment of contemplation before the ensuing cataclysm.
This painting is a self-contained retrospective, a visual legend into the definitive oeuvre of Tyeb Mehta. "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." (Y. Dalmia, 2011, pp. 27-29)