Tyeb Mehta’s profound paintings with their diagonals and dismembered bodies set him apart as a master of modern art, says artist Atul Dodiya
TYEB MEHTA was a colossus who almost defined the concept of plasticity — the process of using solid colours to flatten an image into a two-dimensional feel — in modern Indian art. Though he was acutely unwell for the last 20 years, particularly the last seven, he painted with intense passion and a kind of monastic discipline. For us, a younger generation of painters, he was a sort of moral and artistic lightening rod. We used to go to him as students of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. He never commented much, but his mere presence was a solace to us, a marker of what we should and should not be doing. He never explicitly told us what we should do but he had total clarity on what we should not do. Such things are an integral part of the creative process.
I leant more towards narrative art. He was not inclined towards it but never tried to wean me away. He only cautioned me about how a work of art could become illustrative or banal — ‘banal’, in fact, was one of his favourite words. Afterwards, he would recommend some master’s work to make me understand how things should be done.
His own paintings were profound. The diagonals and flat falling figures and dismembered bodies he started doing in the 1970s are a major contribution to world art. He had a limited vocabulary, and typical Tyeb Mehta subjects include a falling figure, a rickshaw puller, a trussed bull and a screaming mouth. The images of Kali and Mahishasura followed. Though Tyeb never liked discussing his paintings in terms of themes, we can read in them his feelings about the times in which we live. During the Partition he witnessed from his window the death of a young man whose head was smashed by a crowd. It made him ill for many days. That incident had a big impact on his oeuvre. Equally, Tyeb was deeply disturbed by the violence, terrorism and a loss of faith between communities after the 1980s — in particular, the Hindu- Muslim riots post the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Gujarat 2002. Violence of every kind shook him. He believed even a scream or talking loudly was a form of violence. He used to say he was a painter of dard, of emotions.
As a student, I watched his 18-minute film Koodal (Tamil for ‘union’). It was so powerful that even Satyajit Ray praised it. Here, bull slaughter is beautifully shot. In an early interview, he mentioned that after witnessing how the animal’s legs were tied and it was slaughtered, he saw in it a metaphor for a changing India. This large nation with its strong traditions was represented in the bull. It was a symbolic reference to the tying up of a profound energy. Perhaps that’s why trussed bulls recur in his work. Koodal showed that Tyeb had a powerful grip on the cinematic medium. The power of the bulls and cows in the film, the people playing kabaddi on the sea shore, the camera movements — each frame was full of energy. He came from a cinema background and his family runs several cinema halls in Mumbai and Pune. In fact, Tyeb started as an editor but gave it up because of his ill health. For many years, he wanted to make a film based on Mahashweta Devi’s Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma. Eventually, he worked on the script of the film made by Govind Nihalani.
A man of dignity and integrity, he was a serious painter and also a slow one. Since he was very precise, he would reject two or three canvases before he arrived at a final version of a painting. A perfectionist, he stood out like a beacon.
THOUGH TYEB was essentially a painter, the few sculptures he made were equally fantastic. The aesthetics of structure and form were inborn in him. He admired Matisse, Picasso and Francis Bacon and would talk a great deal about them. I, on the other hand, was interested in Pop Art. He would listen to me and I soon realised that though he was much older, he was more aware of world art than my contemporaries.
Tyeb believed a scream or even talking loudly was a form of violence. He used to say that he was a painter of ‘dard’, of emotions
Times have changed and now there is an international interest in Indian art. Tyeb was very instrumental in creating that interest. When Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctioned his paintings on the international scene, it was a landmark for us in India. Yet, Tyeb was creative even when there was no market and no demand. His concern and absolute dedication was the same even then. The New York Times wrote a wonderful article on him after his Mahishasura fetched $1.5 million, but I wish someone had written earlier about the great art he was creating. Tyeb saw all this glory but he was aloof. He never really benefited from the auctions. The works he sold were acquired by collectors, who resold them in the secondary market and at auctions. But none of that mattered. At any rate, when new benchmarks are set in an auction, it helps in the sale of future work, not just for that painter, but others as well.
‘While making Gajagamini, Tyeb was my think tank. I wanted to create a new language of Indian cinema but people like Naseeruddin Shah ridiculed me, saying the film was my indulgence because of Madhuri Dixit. They never shook my confidence because Tyeb said, “You’re doing great work”’
‘Tyeb depicted the human figure in a painterly manner never before seen in India or in the world. We were both silent, serious workers. He used to come to my studio and I used to go to his. We were interested in discovering ideas, not making news’
‘I remember having lunch at Tyeb’s house when he was still living within a joint family in Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai. He was trying to find out the qualities he would like in his work. Later, you could always point out Tyeb’s paintings from a distance’
All the masters from the Progressive Group were from Mumbai’s JJ School of Art — VS Gaitonde, SH Raza, Akbar Padamsee. Husain sahib, of course, was not a formal student but they were all part of the group. Ram Kumar was away in Simla and then France but I would include him in the group of masters of modern Indian art. My generation of artists grew up with their work and they had a major influence. Tyeb has not directly influenced my painting but he has had an impact as a thinker, as someone who would point out the many temptations and slippery points that could come up in an artist’s life. He explained how, when a particular subject becomes successful, there is a tendency in artists to repeat those themes. He helped me navigate those points. That’s why, in my career I try not to stick to one mode of expression. He never told me his views categorically but I could filter his views by listening to his comments on other artists and on masters from the West. That would make me immediately correct myself. That’s the kind of anchored figure that Tyeb always was.