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Razvin Namdarian

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Tyeb Mehta – The Silent Hero!

Indian contemporary art lost one of its main heroes recently. Tyeb Mehta passed away on the 2nd of July 2009. He was the first artist to make waves in international auctions and make the world give Indian art a newfound respect.

Born in 1925 in Gujarat, art however wasn’t his first career; he started off as a film editor, in a cinema laboratory. It was his love for art that lead him to take up a diploma in art from the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, in 1952. He was associated with the Progressive Artists Groups which boasted of such stalwarts of Indian art as M F Hussain, Jehangir Sabavala, F N Souza and S H Raza. Like most artists of his time, he also spent some time abroad; between 1959 and 1964 he lived and worked in London, in 1968 he was in the US on a Rockefeller Fellowship.

He was a quiet and introverted artist who preferred to stay away from the limelight and let his work speak for its self instead. There were many influences on his art. The most profound being his observations during the riots following the partition of India. Mehta was only 22 years old at the time. He was living in the Mohammed Ali area of Mumbai and could not even cross the road to go to work at the Famous Studios. He witnessed a man being lynched to death by a mob and it affected him to such an extent that his art seemed to reverberate with the suffering.

Tyeb Mehta was always a very emotional artist; he had a connection with the subjects he chose to portray. The rickshaw pullers in his work come from the time he spent with his grandmother in Calcutta. Time at an abattoir gave birth to the image of the trussed bull. Later one also found mythical themes like the famous Mahishasura entering his works. The Diagonal series was the result of a block he was facing as an artist in 1969; in frustration he flung black paint onto the canvas and he was amazed at the result of the black streak which seemed to cleave the canvas and yet unite it at the same time. He was greatly influenced by Picasso, Matisse, Bacon and Kandinsky.

Throughout his career as an artist, he could not completely let go of his love for the cinema either. He, along with M F Hussain had been approached by the Films Division to make documentaries, Mehta made Koodal, Tamil for ‘meeting point’ - a powerful depiction of the ordinary man's dilemma, which won a Filmfare Critics award in 1970. He also wrote the script based on Mahaswetha Devi's novel Hazaar Chaurasi ki maa which was later made into a film by Govind Nihalani. He cited difficulty in getting finance as the main reason for his not having created any more movies.

His paintings were the first to break the million dollar mark at an international art auction. In 2005, at the Osian’s auction, his painting Gesture was sold for 31 million Indian rupees to Ranjit Malkani, chairman of Kuomi Travel, making it the highest price ever paid by an Indian for a work of Indian contemporary art at auction in India. Yet Mehta continued to lead a humble existence, managing to acquire only a modest flat for himself and his family in Mumbai. While his paintings got fantastic prices at auctions, Mehta did not gain financially from any of the secondary sales, except when art collector Ebrahim Alkazi gave him 25% when he sold Kali for over a crore.

Mehta received many laurels during his lifetime including - the Kalidas Samman by the Madhya Pradesh Government in 1988; the Dayawati Modi Foundation Award for Art, Culture, and Education in 2005 and the Padma Bhushan by the government of India in 2007.

Yet, he was able to insulate himself and his art from the all the hype and media attention, as he himself said, "I do not paint for money, or for what people think of me or of my work. I am not part of this hyped up ‘art world', yet, this changing world outside my window is reflected in my work. I paint of my times, but I am not of this time."

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