Tyeb Mehta, who along with other members of the Progressive Artists Group initiated modernism in Indian art, died of a heart attack on July 2. Mehta’s paintings, filled with images of violent separation, falling figures and fractured forms, reflect the death and dislocation that followed Partition in 1947 and are now celebrated as seminal works of Indian art.
The Mumbai-based artist, born in 1925 in Kapadvanj, Gujarat, grew up in the Crawford Market neighborhood of Mumbai within the orthodox Shiite community of the Dawoodi Bohras. His first job was in film—the family business—and for three years he worked as an editor at Famous Cine Laboratories before deciding to focus on fine art. In 1947, he enrolled at the country’s leading institution, the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai. There he met a group of graduates from the school, including MF Husain and FN Souza, who comprised the Progressives and rejected both Western classicism and the nationalist Bengal school—established a generation earlier—in favor of a new Indian avant-garde. Following a self-imposed separation from his extended family at age 29, Mehta went abroad to London and Paris for four months in 1954 to study Western art, both the old masters and European modernists. In 1956, he completed his first important works, Rickshaw Pullers and Trussed Bull, abstract canvases composed of hard-edged shapes that prefigured, in both subject and style, his best-known works.
Mehta’s first solo exhibition came in 1959 at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery, where he sold just a few works, beginning several decades of only modest commercial success. Following the show, Mehta, his wife Sakina and son Yusuf moved to London, where they lived from 1959 to 1964. While abroad, Mehta’s work progressed through a series of styles, becoming more abstract and richly textured, though he never abandoned the figure nor an underlying sense of anguish.
Mehta developed his signature style—canvases showing the human form broken into irregular shapes of solid color bordered by black lines—in the late 1960s after a yearlong period of study in New York on a Rockefeller Fellowship. Living in New Delhi upon his return to India, Mehta began his “Diagonal” series (1969–76), bold canvases characterized by a streak that runs from the top-right corner to the lower left, bisecting scenes of figures with horrified expressions.
After resettling in Mumbai in the late 1970s after a bout of ill health, Mehta was invited to be an artist-in-residence at Vishva Bharati University, Santiniketan (near Kolkata) in 1983. While there, he painted his famous Santiniketan Triptych (1984), a 4.5-meter-long canvas depicting the Charak festival of Santhal, with a crowd embracing one another under a blue sky. The work was first exhibited at Chemould Art Gallery in 1985 and was later acquired by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
Throughout the 1980s, Mehta’s paintings grew bolder in style. He painted a series featuring the royal blue form of the Hindu goddess Kali, and further developed his motifs of the rickshaw, the falling figure, the trussed bull and the bird, often combining two of these motifs into a single canvas, as in Falling Figure With Bird (1987), a contorted figure and white bird against a black ground.
Mehta finally garnered recognition in his 60s. In 1988, he was awarded the Kalidas Samman, given by the state of Madhya Pradesh for outstanding contributions to the arts. In 1994, fellow Progressive SH Raza included him in “Seven Indian Painters” at Paris’ Gallery Le Monde de l’Art. Mehta later won the Dayawati Modi Foundation Award for Art, Culture and Education in 2005, and in 2007 the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award given by the Indian government for distinguished service.
A rise in awareness, critical validation and commercial valuation of works by artists such as Mehta in this decade has led to the acknowledgment of contemporary South Asian art within the larger international art world. The record-breaking sale of Mehta’s Celebration (1995), a five-meter-long canvas that recalls the colors and composition of the Santiniketan Triptych, which sold for USD 317,500 at Christie’s New York in 2002, led to a boom in Indian art sales.
Three years later, at Christie’s New York, Mehta’s Mahisasura (1997), showing the Hindu buffalo-demon locked in a violent struggle with the goddess Durga, sold for $1.58 million—the highest price ever paid for the work of a living Indian artist and the first time a work of Indian contemporary art sold for more than $1 million. The artist’s success at auction continued when in June 2008, a jagged composition in blues, grays and ochre, Untitled – Figure on Rickshaw (1984) sold for $1.91 million.
Throughout his life, Mehta was regarded as a difficult man to please and was his own harshest critic and strictest editor, often destroying many canvases in the process of creating a painting. He described his camaraderie with fellow Progressives during the early days of Indian independence in his 2006 interview with Somini Sengupta for the New York Times: “There was no Indian modern tradition to turn to. One had to create from nowhere. We learned painting together by talking, by looking at each other’s work, by criticizing, by appreciating.”
This process continued in later years as he became friend, mentor and beacon to a whole generation of younger artists. I once had the privilege of spending time with Tyeb Mehta at his humble home and studio in the Mumbai suburbs, along with two artists of a younger generation, Atul and Anju Dodiya. This was several years ago, and he was already frail, soft spoken but generous, witty and fully informed. While the modest artist shied away from capitalizing on his works’ commercial success in the secondary market, he took pleasure in witnessing the benefits to younger artists of the boom he catalyzed.
Having witnessed the throes of Partition-era brutality on the streets of Mumbai, Mehta worked through the repercussions of such brutal violence and aggression throughout his artistic career. By pairing his internal conflicts with the sublimely disjunctive and abstract visual aesthetics of artists such as Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse and Bacon,Mehta produced works that are now benchmarks of Indian modernism.
The artist’s passing made headlines across India. Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, called Mehta’s death “a major loss to the art world.” Tyeb Mehta is survived by his wife, Sakina, their son and daughter, and numerous grandchildren.