Tyeb Mehta, who died last night, was obsessive. Even though he’d been steadily losing his eyesight to a point of near-blindness over the last decade, even though his hearing had become impaired, and even though he was in and out of hospital the last few years, he did — as near as possible — his riyaaz: painting, if not on canvas, then in his mind. Spartan and austere, they were two sides of a coin for him, and as in his life, so in his art, he had pared everything down to a stark minimalism.
It was a point he had arrived at over the decades. Most artists are known to produce their best work in their early years. Tyeb Mehta used his early years as a stepping stone to craft his art, the fifties and sixties acknowledging his talent, the seventies when he would leave behind everything he had achieved so far to develop the firm brushstrokes to indicate the lament and anguish of the disenfranchised, the eighties and nineties resulting in a body of work that was not just his but also the country’s finest — the Diagonal series, his Rickshaw Pullers, the Kali and Mahishasura series, and the Celebration and Santiniketan triptychs.
His dissatisfaction with the final form of his art was the stuff of legend. If he was loathe to part with his canvases, it wasn’t because he was possessive of them but because he often remained unhappy with the result of what he saw of what he had painted.
For the last two decades, Tyeb Mehta’s paintings were almost entirely consigned for sale through Vadehra Art Gallery, and his friend, confidant and gallerist Arun Vadehra recalled that “for every painting of Tyeb’s that came out, he destroyed seven or eight paintings”.
Vadehra had first-hand experience of this when he bought a painting from Tyeb Mehta, for which he paid in full because the artist was in need of money. “Tyeb said he wanted to keep the painting for 15 to 20 days,” said Vadehra, “so when I asked for it after four weeks, I was shocked when he said he had destroyed it.”
He did replace it, as he did for others who experienced similar hijacks, with Falling Figure, an excellent representation of his oeuvre, and one which he coaxed Vadehra into keeping for himself rather than selling. The painting hangs in Vadehra’s office. “I’ve had fantastic offers for it,” said the gallerist who intends to keep his promise rather than profit from the artist.
For profit people did at his expense. When, in 1991, Vadehra bought his first painting from Tyeb Mehta to sell, the price was Rs 80,000 “for five-six months of work, and in which he had to support his mother, his wife and two children”. His selling price then was Rs 1.2 lakh, but Vadehra sold it immediately for Rs 1 lakh because the artist wanted the money, so close was he to penury. Mahishasura, which was auctioned for Rs 8 crore, went on to become the most expensive painting auctioned by a living Indian artist, though Mehta himself got nothing from the proceeds.
Born in 1925, the 84-year old, long-haired, soft-spoken artist complained of breathlessness on July 1 and was taken to hospital where the doctors could do nothing more for him. Survived by his wife Sakina, who had worked to support him when they lived in Delhi, before they moved to Bombay, and a son and daughter, both of them associated with film-making, Tyeb Mehta will be remembered most for the “suppressed energy” and violence of his works, the primordial engagement of negative and positive energies, between what some might consider the mythologies of good and evil, or perhaps two powerful forces.
His estate passes on to his wife, but collectors will be bereft of his presence, his patience, and his headstrong discipline. While others played the market, or wooed the media, Tyeb Mehta remained India’s most iconic artist in, particularly, the last quarter of the 20th century. For some time now speculators, aware of his ill-health, had been holding on to his work, aware that their prices, given the rarity of his canvases, will escalate steeply even in a suppressed economic environment.
Financial value, however, was not something to which Tyeb Mehta gave too much merit. “His will to produce excellent work was phenomenal,” says Arun Vadehra. With that as his legacy, Mehta can rest in peace.