Mumbai: Violence is integral to Mumbai, and after the protests against the communal clashes in Assam that left two dead in the city on 11 August, one of Tyeb Mehta’s most representative works is returning to remind the city of this.

On 21 August, Mumbai will host a four-day exclusive preview of artworks, modern and contemporary Indian masters, The New York Sale of South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art, up for auction at Christie’s in New York in September. The collection features two key pieces from the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, a sub-group within the Moderns comprising Francis Newton Souza, S.H. Raza, K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and their younger associate Mehta: a rare Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Untitled (1969), and one of Mehta’s most significant and defining works, Falling Figure (1992).

Symbol of partition: Falling Figure is one of Mehta’s most significant and defining works. (photo courtesy Christie )

The work was painted and first exhibited at Shivaji Park in March 1992, almost pre-empting the riots that subsequently tore the city apart, as part of Artists Against Communalism (AAC), a 12-hour cultural sit-in organized by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) on 14 March 1992.

Mehta, then confined to his bed, emerged to paint the work on a scale he had never attempted before, against doctor’s orders, for the cause it represented.

In this painting, Mehta was reconstructing a man’s murder on Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai that he had witnessed during the Partition riots in 1947. “The red that he uses is equally the colour of love, and of blood," points out Weihe. “This was the obsessive theme that moved him—human suffering—and it was a painting that was incredibly important to him. It represents what was at his core."

A Delhi gallerist and long-time friend of Mehta’s, Arun Vadehra, says it is a painting born of an incident that stayed with Mehta. “It is an extremely significant painting. It falls in line with the imagery of the Trussed Bull, the Rickshaws, and Mehta went at it with the passion that he did of course all his works, but it is also an immense solo figure with very strong red colour and undoubtedly one of his largest works." Mutilation and slaughter were key to Mehta’s works, and though created at a later date, Falling Figure best represents the haunting image that probably set Mehta down that path.

“The image of the Mahishasura-mardini acts as a cosmic enclaspment, a making whole: In it, the self may stage its own death and rebirth, its release from a partial and inadequate state, its fulfilment," wrote Ranjit Hoskote of the late artist’s oeuvre in his essay Images of Transcendants in the book Ideas Images Exchanges. Mahishasura, the first of Mehta’s paintings to hold a world auction record for any modern Indian work of art (since overtaken by Raza’s Saurashtra in June 2010 with $3.5 million, or around 19.46 crore now), was the culmination of the process Hoskote talks about.

Many of Mehta’s works— from the triptych Celebration, which sold at a Christie’s auction for $317,500 in 2002, to Kali (1997), which sold at a Saffronart auction in 2005 for 1 crore—took Indian art to the peak of the boom. It’s estimated that Falling Figure will fetch $600,000-800,000.

Gaitonde’s Untitled is drawn from the collection of Bernard Peters, a cosmic-ray physicist and the co-discoverer of heavy primaries, and a student of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, who was invited by Homi Bhabha to live and work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research for seven years in 1952. He gained a sense of Indian art from Bhabha, and on his return in 1969, acquired this fresh painting from Gaitonde.

It’s a key work because Gaitonde was not as prolific an artist; his work broke the 92 lakh barrier in 2002 at an Osian’s auction.

“There hasn’t been a great Gaitonde out there for a while," says Weihe. “You would go to his studio and find only three paintings there and the rest had all been sold. So while he was highly valued, there was not so much of him. We consider him the Mark Rothko of India". The work is estimated at $450,000-600,000.

The New York Sale of South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art will be on from 21-24 August (no invitation is required on 23-24 August) at Christie’s office in Mumbai. The auction will take place in New York on 12 September.

gayatri.j@livemint.com

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