The Story of Indian Art #16: Tyeb Mehta

A look at the life and work of Tyeb Mehta, the first Indian contemporary artist whose works were sold for over a million dollars.

Tyeb Mehta was the first Indian contemporary artist whose works were sold for over a million dollars. Furthermore, he also led to what eventually became the great Indian art boom in the country.

An extremely self-critical painter, Tyeb Mehta had set such high standards for himself that for every painting that he sold at an auction, he destroyed seven to eight paintings, until he came up with the one, which according to him met his standards.

Tyeb Mehta

Tyeb Mehta (1925 – 2009)

Born at a time when the country was experiencing nationalism at its peak, events and experiences from his personal life shaped much of his artistic career. The spirit of nationalism and the distress that came with partition were strongly portrayed on his canvas.

The making of Tyeb Mehta

Tyeb Mehta was born on September 26, 1925 in Kapadvanj, in the town of Kheda district in Gujarat in a Shi’ite Muslim family.

Raised in the Crawford Market area of Mumbai, young Tyeb was greatly influenced by the communal riots that the family was exposed to during partition. The incidents that he witnessed early in his life played a crucial role in his upbringing and later in his career.

He began his career by working as a film editor at the Famous Studios in Tardeo, Mumbai in a cinema laboratory. A profound interest in painting that took him to Sir J.J. School of Art in 1952, from where he did his diploma in painting.

Later, he became a part of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, the same group which boasted of having painting greats such as FN Souza, SH Raza and MF Husain.

Tyeb Mehta at work

In 1959, he moved to London, where he spent the important years of his youth life. It was during this time that he was inspired by the works of Francis Bacon, an expressionist painter whom he became acquainted with in London.

In 1964, Tyeb Mehta moved to New York, where he was awarded a fellowship from the John D Rockefeller 3rd Fund in 1968. His painting style eventually evolved as he drew inspiration from minimalist art and his work came to be characterized by minimalism.

Meanwhile it was during this time that he came up with the popular painting of a trussed bull that displayed the light of helpless animals at the Mumbai slaughter house.

Trussed Bull

Trussed Bull (1956) by Tyeb Mehta

For a year, from 1984 to 1985, he served as the Artist-in-Residence at Santiniketan. The period brought about significant changes in his work and painting themes.

In 1991, he came up with the work, ‘Falling Figure’, which was largely impacted by the communal riots which he was exposed to as a child. He brought to canvas the violent death of a man in the street that he witnessed during the riots at the time of Partition of India. The painting showed the immense pain and brutality that the man suffered.

During this time, he came up with several notable works of his lifetime including that of a trapped rickshaw puller which highlighted his cynicism with the world around and so on.

Honouring Tyeb Mehta

Tyeb Mehta participated in a number of international exhibitions, including ‘Ten Contemporary Indian Painters’ at Trenton in U.S.A.; ‘Deuxieme Biennial Internationale de Menton’, ‘Festival Intemationale de la Peinture’ and Cagnes-Sur-Mer in France; ‘Modem Indian Paintings’ at Hirschhom Museum of Washington and ‘Seven Indian Painters’ at Gallerie Le Monde de U art of Paris.

In 1974, he was honoured the Prix Nationale at the International Festival of Painting in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France.

In 1988, the Government of Madhya Pradesh conferred him with the Kalidas Samman.

In 2007, the Government of India honoured him with the country’s third highest civilian award, Padma Bhushan.

Millions for Tyeb Mehta

His painting of demon Mahishasura and Goddess Kali was the most celebrated work of the time and brought him immense fame and recognition. The way with which he dealt with the theme on canvas was greatly acknowledged. The painting went on to gain 10 million Indian rupees at the Saffornart’s online auction in 2005.

Mahishasura (1996)

Mahishasura (1996) by Tyeb Mehta

One of the paintings of Tyeb Mehta holds the record for being the highest priced Indian painting. In December 2005, his painting ‘Gesture’ was sold for 31 million Indian rupees at the Osian’s auction. The deal made him the highest paid Indian contemporary artist at an auction.

Tyeb Mehta at a glance

Birth Date: 25th July, 1925 AD

Died At Age: 83

Born In: Kapadvanj, Gujarat, India

Spouse/Partner: Sakina

Children: Yusuf and Himani

Died On: 02 July 2009

Place Of Death: Mumbai, India

To read other editions of the series, click here.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.

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