Ever since his painting Mahisasur fetched $1.6 million (around Rs7.6 crore now) at the Christie’s auction in New York in 2005—breaking the million-dollar ceiling for a work by an Indian artist—Tyeb Mehta’s name has been firmly coupled with this headline-grabbing feat. The irony couldn’t be greater, for Mehta—who died of a heart attack at the age of 84 in Mumbai on Thursday—was known as much for being completely unconcerned about money as for his towering achievement as an artist.
Self-effacing: Mehta was a solitary artist who did not crave attention. Nemai Ghosh / Faces of Indian Art /Courtesy Art Alive Gallery
“Unlike other artists he was fully taken up with his work,” says his contemporary, the veteran artist K.G. Subramanyan. “He didn’t worry about some of the things that preoccupied others—like money.” Subramanyan recalls how Mehta fell in love with Santiniketan where he spent two years in 1984-85 as an artist in residence, adding that the stay had a lasting effect on his style.
Maithili Parekh, India representative of the Sotheby’s auction house, underscores the psychological boost that the Indian art market—and the Indian art world in general—received when Mehta’s work broke the million-dollar barrier. “It gave us confidence and pride,” she says. “There were many moments that were important in the evolution of the Indian art market and this was certainly one of them.”
Peter Nagy, who runs the Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi, calls Mehta “the most serious and discerning artist of his generation”, who right until the end maintained a high level of quality. “He didn’t ever water down his work,” says Nagy. “He never commercialized.” Like his senior contemporaries who established the Progressive Artists Group in the 1940s, Mehta employed the language of Modernist painting to draw subjects from traditional Indian mythology. “He synthesized it extremely well,” says Nagy. “But he did it in a limited realm.” Mehta, he points out, basically stuck to the signature style he developed in the 1960s, right till the end.
Art critic Ranjit Hoskote knew Mehta for 20 years and his book Tyeb Mehta: Images of Transcendence, a biographical work that will also provide a new reading of the artist’s works, is due out next year. Mehta, he says, was among those few who believed that dedication to art was the main purpose of his life. It was this level of commitment which for the longest time—from the late 1950s right until the mid-1970s, when there was no commercial resonance to his work and very little critical understanding of it—enabled him to operate in a virtual vacuum. While people generally know him for the price his works fetched, that, feels Hoskote, is irrelevant to an understanding of his art. Far more important is an understanding of what he calls the “epical dimension” of his work—basically, the idea that an artist can be “completely devoted to the internal logic of his art”.
Mehta was a solitary artist who did not crave attention and reward, and this stands out in clearer relief in retrospect, when viewed in the context of some of the more flamboyant Progressive artists such as F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain. “He did not call attention to himself, the painting was the thing for him,” says Hoskote.
Hoskote points out that his works, in a sense, look apolitical but in fact resonate with the way post-colonial India has been a catalogue of victim-hood of different kinds. He created a mythology of his own, with recurring subjects such as the falling figure, the trussed bull and, most famously, the goddess and the buffalo-demon Mahisasur who was slain by her—a mythology of the innocent victim which came from his Shia background. “While it looks abstract, it can actually address very specific political concerns,” says Hoskote.
He describes Mehta as a “wise, soft and self-effacing” man, but one who possessed a tough core and was very uncompromising as an artist. To him, Mehta’s legacy is his life—about what it means to be a true artist in the old-fashioned sense.
“He incarnated the extreme possibility of a pure artist,” says Hoskote. “Someone who was prepared to stake everything for his art.”