Tyeb Mehta's Mahishasuras and Rickshaws

The 92nd birth anniversary of Tyeb Mehta, the mandarin of the metaphor falls on July 26, 2017. Tyeb passed away on July 2, 2009. It wouldn't be wrong to state that auction houses all over the world want to have a coveted cover of a work by Tyeb Mehta whenever they have an auction.

Tyeb Mehta's works were often termed as creative vitality rooted in tradition. In the Kekoo Gandhi (Chemould Gallery) collection was a riveting Falling Figure that was a reflection of India's Partition in 1947. The striking composition of a Falling Figure by Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009) is a subject, often revisited by Mehta. It was born out of a traumatic memory from childhood when he witnessed the violent death of a man on the street during the Partition riots of 1947. Painted in 1991, this painting exhibits Mehta's mastery of composition and economy of line and colour.
Tyeb described his process: "My images are very carefully chosen. For instance, the very first image that I painted with a great deal of thought and emotion was that of a trussed bull. Prior to that I painted the rickshaw puller, these are the two images that really appealed to me in those days. Even now, they do and I keep painting them. I relate to these images. For me, the trussed bull is a compulsive image."
However, the most important works by Tyeb Mehta belonged to his groundbreaking Mahishasura series and his Rickshaw series. In this dynamic context, Mahishasura as a series happened after Tyeb's visit to Shantiniketan. At the centre of the artist's medley of icons is the humble rickshaw. In 1983, Mehta was invited to be artist-in-residence at Viswa-Bharati University, Shantiniketan, for two years. This invitation was timely, since his stay in Shantiniketan allowed him to recuperate from a serious illness, and the cultural ambience surrounding Shantiniketan was inspiring. It was during this residency that he painted 'Figure on Rickshaw'. Mehta's experiences in Calcutta are indelibly linked to the development of the rickshaw theme; the city is one of the last bastions where human rickshaw-pullers still operate. Rickshaws are a perennial presence along the dusty roads and winding inner-city alleyways of Shantiniketan and Kolkata to this day.
The Christies catalogue stated that Mehta, however, chose to depict the rickshaw not as a representation of travel or liberation, but as a symbol of struggle and subjugation for its captive puller. "[...] The rickshaw- puller, the yoke [...], the cart a burden he cannot cast off: in the torsion of fricative, blade-sharp planes, no one can tell where flesh passes into wood and metal, where the limbs end and machine begins." (R Hoskote Tyeb Mehta, Images and Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005, p 3) Mehta uses the rickshaw as a metaphorical stage for the dramatisation of modern man's sociological and psychological concerns. "The rickshaw is not a simple means of transport but a sign of bondage." (N Ezekiel, Tyeb Mehta, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, 1970, unpaginated). Tyeb Mehta's painting from 1999, Untitled (Falling Bull) at Christie's India Sale in 2014 was a virtuosic celebration of the iconic subjects and symbols that defined him. The trussed falling bull was the protagonist set upon a rickshaw, seemingly spiralling out of control towards cataclysm.
The iconic Rickshaw series underscores the anonymity and isolation of the common labourer and draws our attention to the ensemble of the experience and the compositional characteristics of allusions. In May, this year at Christie's in London, Tyeb's 'Woman on Rickshaw' set a new world record at Rs 19 crores. In 2005, in an interview with this critic, Tyeb had explained his epiphany that happened at Shantiniketan with the Santhals at a place called Charak.
"There was this Santhal woman whom I found so captivating" reminisced Tyeb.
"This lady in a make believe temple stood almost nude, she poured some water near the tree trunk. I was so struck by her presence that I carried that presence, it still remains with me. It was so stunning for me, I came back and painted two women on a rickshaw and my work Shantiniketan slowly happened. It was her role in the drama, something implicit in her image which could not be explained in some way that remained as a part of my memory. You see with myths one should not be in a hurry, they should settle onto the memory so that you can stop and dwell on them at length. You have to reflect without losing touch either with their image or with their intent."
Tyeb stood apart for his interpretation – "the ambiguous dichotomies between the masculine and feminine, the divine and mortal, and the human and the bestial, while also conveying a larger theme of consummation and destruction." Tyeb's most magnificent Mahishasura was created in 1996. The twisting figures depicted in diagonal planes fascinated for their juxtapositional brilliance – they overlapped and blurred into each other in a violent and overtly sexual mannerism.
Tyeb's famous Mahishasuras ingenious – the bodies of the protagonists slipped and knotted over one another, embraced in an exalted act of yogic origami; tropes of war and love born out of disembodiment, torsion and inflammation. Tyeb distilled the highly complex religious themes of this story to a single frame, he recast Mahisha as a sympathetic figure in a seductive embrace with Durga. In his interpretation, both figures are awakened into being fully aware that she will vanquish him. Eventually, after ten thousand years, Mahisha is slain by Durga. However, Mahisha's prior acts may also be seen in a self-sacrificial light, and as a general metaphor for the spiritual transformation that comes as a result of union with the divine.
Tyeb stood apart and created his own retinue of residual metaphors in his ability to fuse ancient imagery with the simplicity of form, colour and line, resulting in powerfully modern works full of fresh vitality. It was Tyeb's Mahishasuras and rickshaws that put Indian contemporary art on the global platform.
(Images: Pundoles, Christie's, Sotheby's, Uma Nair archives)
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