Untitled, oil on canvas, signed and dated Tyeb 78 on reverse, framed, 150.4 x 120.1cm (59 3/16 x 47 5/16in).
This work is part of the Diagonal series.
This work has been authenticated by Tyeb Mehta Foundation.
Provenance: Private Collection; acquired directly from the artist in 1980 from his studio in Bombay.
Across a six-decade-long career, Tyeb Mehta distilled a vocabulary of compelling archetypal images from the flux of experience. Among these were the trussed bull struggling with his fate, the falling figure suspended in a luminous void, the goddess and the buffalo-demon locked in mortal combat, the rickshaw-puller fused with his vehicle, and the figure wielding yet torn apart by a diagonal that could be read as a thunderbolt or a device of planar scission. This untitled work from 1978 is an early and powerful example of what would soon be recognised as Mehta's mature style. From the 1970s onward, he would render his figures as a series of staccato sections in flat planes of colour, often at odds with one another, as though they were multiple selves liberating themselves from a single body. I have written, elsewhere, that each of Mehta's paintings acts as a "silent movie, in which we see mouths screaming, faces, distended in terror, flailing limbs, thrashing wings". His paintings point to the splintering apart and potential re-integration of the individual mind, society, and the world at large; as viewers, we must read the clues and divine the psychic and political meanings of the work.
A major contributor to the tradition of Indian modernism, Mehta was closely associated with the pioneering Progressive Artists Group. Although he was born in Bombay and spent most of his life there, an especially productive phase of his career was staged in New Delhi, where he lived from 1965 to 1979. He played an active role in the Indian capital's lively art scene during those years, together with friends and colleagues like Ebrahim Alkazi, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar and A Ramachandran, as well as the redoubtable and nomadic M F Husain. It is to this Delhi phase of activity that the present painting belongs. In this work, we see to advantage the celebrated diagonal that first made its appearance in Mehta's art in 1969. As the artist himself told the tale, he found the device intuitively rather than arriving at it through reflection: one day, frustrated with a painting that had refused to resolve itself, he picked up a brush loaded with black paint and slashed it across the canvas. The anecdote conveys the intensity of Mehta's conceptual struggle at the time. He wished to escape the stable, well-centred figures he had been painting, without abandoning the figure as the key pictorial bearer of human destiny. At the same time, he wanted his frames to resonate with the fragmentation that coloured contemporary experience, to carry the anguish of shattered certitudes in a decade when the world seemed to be drifting towards nuclear confrontation, India had departed from the ideals of its liberation struggle, and South Asia was ripped apart by the antagonism between India and Pakistan.
Mehta's diagonal may be contextualised within a specific history. The most essential function of the diagonal is to effect a partition of space that was homogenous until the making of this gesture, into two related but separate parts. The echo of the 1947 Partition of British India reverberates in this slashing, arbitrary gesture. The Partition placed Mehta's generation of South Asian Muslims under the fragmenting pressure of having to choose between an ancestral homeland and a new collective ideal, a traditionally hybrid cultural identity and a new identity premised exclusively on religion. The diagonal simultaneously emphasises separation and twinning: it expresses the psychology of schism that haunted Mehta, proposing a doubling of consciousness and an awareness of difference-within-belonging at several levels, indicating the minority bracketed within the majority, and the artist within a larger public.
Ranjit Hoskote Independent Curator and Author of Images of Transcendence: Towards a New Reading of Tyeb Mehta's Art in Ideas Images Exchanges by Tyeb Mehta, Ranjit Hoskote and Roshan Shahani