When I look at Tyeb Mehta’s painterly opus as a whole, my attention is drawn to his series of Kali and Mahishsura where beauty grapples with the grotesque, decontextualising and recontextualising the familiar images from Hindu mythology, and the resulting masterpieces reaching the level of Francisco da Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Children.
Tyeb Mehta has more than one painting entitled Kali and it is a series of works that also includes Mahishasuramardini and Mahishasura. All these works bring into the frame destructive forces, sometimes acting against each other, and sometimes the divine triumphing over the evil. What we see within each Kali is an all-consuming, cosmic force represented by a fearsome and grotesque human female face—the face of The Terrible Mother.
Taking a closer look at the three Kalis—Kali-1 (1988), Kali-2 (1988), and Kali-3 (1989)—one realizes that in all of them, the figure of Kali is in a dance-like motion. All three Kalis hold on to the torn limbs of a victim. All are painted in the same blue hue, their mouths with a red protruding tongue. Two of them reveal bare teeth.
The faces of the three Kalis, however, have subtly varied expressions. Kali-1 has nearly devoured her victim and is almost content as she is finishing off her meal. Kali-2 is still grappling with her victim and is bringing out all her inner physical force. Kali-3 has finished her victim, save some ripped flesh that she holds in her right hand.
In the Kali series and the related Mahishasura and Mahishasuramardini works, Mehta has moved away from the passionate brushwork of an earlier period to geometrical simplicity and austerity of palette. His masterly drawing skills remain at the core of his compositions.
His images have the authority of statements. “This is it,” he seems to tell with a sense of finality. Sometimes, he makes us feel that we are under arrest; our eyes must move only within the framed canvas and not away from it. Also notable is his use of flat coloured planes that signify his refusal to create depth. He is making a transparent statement about his style of composition. The drawing remains at the centre of his statement. The coloured planes are forces created outside it.
Ramchandra Gandhi, in his insightful book Svaraj, (Vadhera Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2002), quotes Tyeb Mehta as “confessing”: “I have always been attracted to the mother goddess...It’s a primordial image...at Shantiniketan in Bengal I could feel the presence of Kali everywhere.” Gandhi draws our attention to the fact that Mehta’s Kali is pregnant and we realize that there is indeed a big bulge in her belly.
Suddenly, the image acquires significance of a different order. Traditional images of Kali emphasize her ferocious and destructive mood, with her red tongue dripping with blood, a garland of human heads around her neck, or a male figure trampled under her feet.
These images remind us that Kali is the Black One, Elemental Darkness, the ultimate destroyer, and Shakti, the annihilator of ignorance and evil in the world. But they do not visibly remind us that she is Ma or The Cosmic Mother and Mehta does just that by accentuating her protruding belly. We suddenly understand that Kali—as Time incarnate—is protecting the future by destroying the evil present.
Both Goya’s Saturn and Mehta’s Kali are portrayed as cannibals. Such portrayals are rare in high art. Both the paintings may evoke revulsion, terror, and yet are riveting.
Goya painted Saturn Devouring One of His Children after seeing the devastation brought about by the Napoleonic wars. Mehta was profoundly affected by the partition riots in India. Goya’s work, unlike Mehta’s, is almost monochromatic black on a flat yellow grey except for the red at the mouth of Saturn. However, both Saturn and Kali have a ferocious stance and a fierce aspect. They are visually similar as compositions that use diagonals with great force across the space of the canvas.
However, Goya’s masterpiece has horrifying properties. It is a black painting in every sense. It does not make us humble before Saturn. We are distanced from the image by its relentless cynicism.
Mehta’s Kali, though grotesque, is not repulsive. Her destructive dance is in self-defence. She is destroying the evil brought to the world by men and male monsters. She is protecting her own pregnancy and is fighting to deliver a future world even as she is consuming the present. There is a dramatic poise in Kali—a choreographed pause. As in many other paintings of Mehta, diagonal movements, off-centre focal points, tilted planes of flat colour—all contribute to catharsis and aesthetic rapture.