Painted in Tyeb Mehta’s instantly recognisable minimalist format, Untitled (Woman on Rickshaw) resonates with the quiet emotive poignancy that embodies his art. Here, Mehta monumentalises the rickshaw, making it a symbolic stage on which he casts an abstracted female figure. Painted in 1994, this portrait displays the modern master's virtuoso technique, which eliminating any trace of his own hand so that nothing could detract from the primacy of his carefully chosen image. These were “[…] 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)
The ubiquitous rickshaw, normally a benign mode of travel in urban and rural India, takes centre stage in the present painting, transformed by Mehta into an allegory for human suffering, indignity, subjugation and struggle for survival. The image of the rickshaw can be found in Mehta’s works dating as far back as the 1950s, but only appears in his oeuvre on a grand scale much later, following a two year period from 1983, when Mehta was invited to be artist-in-residence at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan. Mehta's stay at Santiniketan was timely since it allowed him to recuperate from a serious illness and its cultural ambience was inspiring. It was during this residency that he painted the iconic Figure on Rickshaw, a work that was offered by Christie’s in 2011 and achieved the world auction record for the artist. Mehta’s experiences in Kolkata are indelibly linked to the maturity of the rickshaw as an image in his paintings. It is important to note that the artist is not referring to the common bicycle rickshaws that bustle through so many of India’s cities but rather the more traditional hand-pulled rickshaws of Kolkata and Santiniketan, some of the last places that they can still be found.
For Mehta, in the present painting, "The rickshaw is not a simple means of transport but a sign of bondage." (N. Ezekiel, Tyeb Mehta, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 1970, unpaginated) and as such, Mehta's iconic Rickshaw series underscores the anonymity and isolation of the common labourer. Significantly in Untitled (Woman on Rickshaw) Mehta has cropped the image so as not to show the rickshaw puller, casting the viewer into this role of bondage instead. The viewer becomes activated and assumes a leading role, caught in a metaphoric dichotomy that Mehta described as, “The tension between containment and freedom is the nature of the work itself.” (Artist statement, N. Adajania, Tyeb Mehta, Images and Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 358)
Almost androgynous in appearance, the captive figure on rickshaw is also formal mechanism within Mehta's composition. Tropes for Mehta are analogous to an artist’s palette: tools with which to craft the final masterpiece. In fact, for Mehta, “The problem with us is that we see the figure. But if you see the painting and forget about the figure, you will be seeing forms relating to each other” (Artist statement, Y. Dalmia, Tyeb Mehta, Images and Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p. 354). In Untitled (Woman on Rickshaw) Mehta reveals his craft and skill as a painter of flawless planes of flat colour, a stark contrast to the gestural, textured impasto of his early works. In an interview with Nikki Ty-Tomkins Seth, the artist explains, “The human figure has become part of my vocabulary, like a certain way of applying colour or breaking up images. It is a sort of vehicle for me […] The human figure is my source, what I primarily react to. But in transferring that image to canvas, I begin to think in terms of modulating the canvas distributing areas of colour and appropriating space." (Artist statement, N. Ty-Tomkins Seth, New Delhi, 2005, p. 343) In the present painting, sumptuous expanses of vivid colour are dissected by the subtle diagonals of the rickshaw handles and wheels and the flailing marble coloured limbs of its occupant, while the abstract use of flattened forms and the segregated monochromatic areas creates a sense of harmony and stillness.
The sophistication of Untitled (Woman on Rickshaw) is evident not only in the potency of Mehta's quintessential icons, but in its exquisitely executed elements as well, which transcend the bounds of naturalism. Mehta invites the viewer to become part of the moment he captures, temporarily suspended in stasis before experiencing what the ancient Greeks referred to as anagnorisis: the hero’s tragic realisation of reality. Mehta’s paintings have the power to invoke wonder and devastation in equal measure as he reveals truths that continue to be poignant and universal in the world today.