Monday, 28 March 2011

An Inscrutable Legacy - Tyeb Mehta [Review] Vadehra Art Gallery

On a cold January evening, at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Defence Colony I was engulfed by large canvasses in warm hues of orange, reds and brown contrasted with white or off-white. In ‘Triumph of Vision’, an exhibition of works by Tyeb Mehta curated by Yashodhara Dalmia, his famous Mahishasura’s were well represented and of particular interest were the early drawings. In’ Trussed Bull on Richshaw’, 1994 [152.5 x 122 cms] Mehta’s almost ascetic approach to painting was striking with its almost imperceptible modelling of colour and stylistic rendition of the bull. The rest of the canvas was painted flat in colours of maroon and bottle green as deep umber surrounded an almost stark white bull, lying on the rickshaw, as if tied. There was nothing that seemed to tie him down except for the sheer agony that pervaded the entire contorted form. Intrigued by imagery that was so restrained in expression despite portraying a heartfelt angst, presented through the plight of a mute animal, I studied this canvas for a long time. The poster-like design and stark composition was inscrutable and the equally inscrutable catalogue essay did not reveal much either.


A retrospective exhibition presenting the work of one of India’s foremost painters, with a social, political and emotional perspective, far removed from the present, should have been presented as more than just an ordinary exhibition. The drawings did provide some context, but his early works, though printed in the catalogue were not on display. Besides this, there has to be much more archival material available that could communicate the significance of Mehta’s work, beyond its mere visual appeal.

On an adjacent wall, was a ‘Mahishasura’ painted in 2001 using acrylic on canvas[183 x 153 cms] in vibrant tones or carmine and vermillion with shades of beige, black and a rusted maroon.   Continuing my silent dialogue with the canvasses, I wondered how the artist had painted with such minimal fuss. Admiring the sparing marks I looked for references for evolution of his rather distinctive iconography. The catalogue text informed that Mehta renounced the family business to join Sir JJ School of Art, in Mumbai in 1947. This was also the year of India’s independence: a freedom hard won that paradoxically lamented the severing of the nation into two parts, where brothers once, now killed each other, believing they had a different God. I shuddered to think that not much had changed. It is January 2011 and similar battles ensue. Although these paintings are relatively recent; the drawings ‘Trussed Bull’ [1955] and ‘Bull’ [1955] indicate that the trussed-up bull as a metaphor evolved somewhere in the 1950’s. The forms then, were not angular but the economy of line that would become synonymous with Mehta is evident.

Contemporary Indian art is lush with opinion and expression. Artists have turned social commentators and performers. The diversity of ideas around us is chaotic, making the minimal marks of Tyeb Mehta appealing yet confounding. This is after all a part of our cultural and visual inheritance, so how did such ascetic expression, one that evolved at a hugely traumatic time for the nation, give way to such cacophonic confusion in the present time? There was clearly something to be learned as also something almost unreal about the work. Was it cold indifference and not emotional restraint? But the angst was also evident. I looked deeper. Was there more? ‘The Fall’ painted in 1974 [150 x 125 cms] seemed to be a turning point in Mehta’s oeuvre and thereafter the marks and expression were fine-tuned with an almost obsessive deliberation and unwavering discipline. On the surface it appeared that the artist had not explored anything beyond this phase. One wondered why.

Many have grown up in a time that did not see the traumas of partition and the agony of this has also been little spoken of by those who lived through that age. As a nation the collective pain was such that everyone seemed to have just put their energies into getting on with the business of building a nation, without looking back. Did they do us an injustice in not sharing in a personal capacity, what they saw and experienced? Were they right to shut out their pain? Could they have done it differently? Questions such as these that emerged as one looked at Tyeb Mehta’s works. I could not relate to them emotionally but when seen through the eyes of his time; through ‘Kali-I’, 1988 [150 x 125 cms] painted in a posture that seemed pregnant with abuse, realization dawned of what may have compelled him turn ascetic. Is it then, almost as a reaction to this that we are perhaps so verbose today?

The painter is significant for more than the paintings he did. This exhibition raised many questions and presentation of this body of work should have taken into consideration the value of Tyeb Mehta, not just in his capacity as a painter, but as an integral part of every contemporary Indian’s artistic inheritance. For appreciation by generations that come after the iconic times he and his contemporaries painted and lived in, this body of work needed to be presented in a manner that was accessible, de-mystifying the marks for cognition of their relevance in the larger context of Indian art as well as his own individual oeuvre.



2 comments:

ART Ellipse said...

very nice article... excellent artist

Gopika Nath said...

Thank you ART Ellipse.