The abstract figures in Tyeb Mehta’s works, which have become a metaphor for human suffering, have long resonated with collectors and art enthusiasts. On 25 May, his Untitled (Woman On Rickshaw) sold for Rs22.9 crore at Christie’s annual South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art sale in London, setting not only a new world auction record for the artist, but also becoming the most expensive work of South Asian art sold globally this year. In this work, Mehta transforms the traditional hand-pulled rickshaw from a simple means of transport into a sign of bondage.

It will be interesting to see how yet another work by the modern master—The Falling Figure—fares at Saffronart’s forthcoming summer online auction, on 6-7 June. The Falling Figure series, experts have written, conveys a duality of emotions: On the one hand, the fragmented figure, falling into an unknown abyss, represents a sense of unease and disorientation. At the same time, it also conveys a feeling of unfettered freedom in its gravity-defying drop. “...In the simple act of falling, Tyeb takes us on into a metaphysical riddle. The falling is vertiginous; and metaphorically expresses man’s freedom in the very act of infinite questing," wrote poet Dilip Chitre about the series in Ideas Images Exchanges, a monograph on Tyeb Mehta published by the Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery.

‘The Falling Figure’. Photo: Courtesy Saffronart
‘The Falling Figure’. Photo: Courtesy Saffronart

Works from the series have come up in auction time and again, with one of the larger canvases having been sold for Rs6 crore by Saffronart just this February. The current smaller canvas for sale (estimated price Rs2-3 crore) was painted in 1965 and is among the earliest in this iconic series, triggered, it is believed, by the violence during Partition.

“Human existentialism is at the heart of all of Mehta’s works. He witnessed someone falling on the street during the riots of 1947 and that fundamentally changed his outlook," says Saffronart chief executive officer Hugo Weihe.

There is a personal story behind this work too. It was gifted by Mehta to his daughter, Himani Mehta Dehlvi, as a wedding present; and the work has been with her family for over 30 years. The Delhi-based Dehlvi says it is difficult for her to put into words the meaning the painting has held in her life, “simply because its influence has been so complex and all-pervasive on my consciousness. Over three decades of watching this painting every day, one realizes that the painting continues to reveal a journey, not just of Tyeb Mehta’s life, but mine as well."

For Dehlvi, the work is unique also because it forms the genesis of a theme that her father would explore for decades through other images of The Falling Figure as well as with Trussed Bull, Mahishasura and Kali. “So I often wondered how special it was that he gifted this very specific painting to me as I was stepping into a new phase of my life. Personally, it has come to be not just a reminder but a revelation of what we strive for, what he strove for, and what the journey entails," she says.

The canvas, she says, also evokes memories of Mehta’s perseverance in achieving the form that best expressed his ideas. “There are memories of seeing him live with an idea for days, weeks and months before he would pick up the brush. My father’s response to an event was never instant. Instead, it would be to reflect long and hard to locate the work in an enduring context," says Dehlvi. “I guess that is probably the reason that I saw a sense of brooding in many of his works."


Saffronart’s summer online auction will take place on 6-7 June.

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