Bearing gallery label on reverse and inscribed 'Tyeb Mehta' on stretched bar
Durga Mahisasura Mardini depicts a reflection of the world around Tyeb Mehta in 1993 and despite being surrounded by rising tension in Mumbai (then Bombay), this current work is symbolic of hope. It was during this period that Mehta created the iconography and pictorial vocabulary that played a significant role in his singularly unique oeuvre. Just as Peter Paul Rubens’ created the Massacre of the Innocents, in 1611-12, during the war between Protestants and Catholics in Antwerp, the present work, painted in 1993, was executed during a time of rising communal tensions in Mumbai. In late 1992, right-wing groups in Mumbai unleashed a series of brutal city-wide riots which greatly affected Mehta. It is in this state of mind that the artist produced some of his most breathtaking works. Unlike his earlier diagonal works which directly dealt with misery and suffering, the present work alludes to a feeling of hope and optimism, transmuting his thoughts into a sophisticated multi-layered commentary on the subject of human drama. Believed to have been painted shortly thereafter, Durga Mahisasura Mardini uses an electrified palette and poignant imagery that are resonant of this period in time. The two figures, the goddess Durga and Mahisasura locked in combat, oscillate between abstraction and figuration. This painting recalls the distortion and rawness such as seen in the work of Francis Bacon. The power of the figures depicted also brings to mind Goya’s Black paintings.
For artists of Mehta’s generation who have witnessed violence and disharmony first-hand, not only living through the Second World War, but also the horrors of partition in 1947, and the Bombay Riots of 1992, a canvas offered a means of transcribing death and destruction in more enlightened terms. As a Muslim living in newly partitioned Hindu-dominated India, Mehta experienced some of the worst events that this period in India’s history had to offer. Mehta recalled, “At the time of partition, I was living on Mohamed Ali Road, which was virtually a Muslim ghetto. I remember watching a young man being slaughtered in the street below my window. The crowd beat him to death, smashed his head with stones.” (Interview with N. T. Seth, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 341). On the subject of the Bombay riots, Mehta said, “Post-Bhiwandi and post-Ayodhya riots, we became very conscious of being Hindu or Muslim. I remember I wanted to make a film on the riots. I wanted to interview this lady, a riot victim, in Delhi. She couldn’t stop crying and I couldn’t open my mouth.” (Interview with N. Adajania, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 366).
Mehta was an advocate of secularism and the alleviation of human suffering. Like Mehta, Rabindranath Tagore had acknowledged, 'Our real problem in India is not political. It is social.' (R. Tagore, ‘Nationalism in India’, Nationalism, Prakash Books India Pvt Ltd., New Delhi, 2017, p. 87). Mehta’s trussed bulls, his rickshaw pullers, his gesture series, his diagonal works, the Shantiniketan Triptych and his mythological works are all examples of the artist’s silent advocacy that sought to counter the divisive effects of communalism. The present work, painted in the colours of the Indian tricolour, is perhaps Mehta’s way of capturing the damage this has caused to the Indian psyche.
While Mehta is known to have painted six renditions of the Goddess Kali, three busts and three full size works – he painted only one of the Goddess Durga in her Mahishasura Mardini avatar.
Unlike the home-grown modernism of Indian art, which was in the process of detaching from the Colonial yoke, being ‘modern’ meant one had to have the exposure to ‘contemporary’ art from the west and the newly independent nations across the world. Mumbai at this time was home to a large community of European émigrés such as Walter Langhammer, Rudi von Leyden and Emmanuel Schlesinger, and westernised Indians such as Ebrahim Alkazi, Sham Lal, Nissim Ezekiel and his teacher Shankar Palsikar. Mehta’s association with these people exposed him to Western art, that was otherwise out of reach for most artists in India at this time. (Y. Dalmia, ‘The War Émigrés And A Creative Effervescence’, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001, p. 57)
Definitive of an era, Durga Mahisasura Mardini merits its place in art history, and is one of the greatest tributes Mehta would make to classical Indian mythology. This masterpiece, was a private commission, and is regarded as one of the most provocative portrayals of the human condition by the artist, rendered in the aftermath of civil strife. Mehta preserves the pathos of his narrative and simultaneously elevates it to universal importance through the exclusive reserve of high art. In doing so, he references some of the most poignant themes in Indian classical mythology and uses them almost as an ‘armature’ on which to hang his feelings.
Durga Mahisasura Mardini, Tyeb Mehta’s very first rendition of the iconic, mythological theme of the goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon Mahisasura with her trident, resonates not with fury, but with a sense of concern and frustration that was perfectly suited to the time. Through his brushstrokes, he is able to capture the nuances of musculature, expression and movement both in the dying buffalo and in the figure of Durga. In the avenging figure of Durga, he alludes to a sense of grief and tenderness rather than rage.
The representation of good over evil and enlightenment over ignorance is a common theme in the canon of Western and Indian art. The powerful imagery of Durga Mahisasura Mardini reminds the viewer of classical portrayals of the battle of good over evil by Old Masters such as Raphael’s in his St. Michael Vanquishing Satan or Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Here, Tyeb’s representation re-configures this theme as an allegory for the twentieth century. With disharmony in society threatening to rip apart the social fabric of India, the spirit of secularism and harmony, and violence are appropriated and recast as the goddess Durga and the demon Mahisasura. These historical inferences become even more interesting considering this painting’s clear connections with classical mythology and Mehta’s apparent attempt to align himself with the stalwarts of art history.
Legend has it that Mahisasura was born as a result of his father, the demon king Rambha’s union with a female buffalo. Following the death of both his parents, Mahisasura, who was already blessed with great power owing to his exalted lineage, gained greater powers through penance which he used to defeat the gods and Indra himself, thereby becoming synonymous with excess and evil. To avenge this defeat, it was said that the gods got together and combined their powers to create Durga whose singular purpose was to destroy the shape-shifting Mahisasura. Mahisasura fell in love with Durga who rejected his advances, something that resulted in a long battle during which he displays his ability to shape-shift from buffalo to man and back to a buffalo. Durga finally defeats Mahisasura in her Mahisasuramardini form. This current work captures this exact moment when, according to Hindu mythology, Durga is about to sever Mahisasura’s buffalo head, as he transitions into human form.
Mehta’s genius was in his use of colour, composition, and radical painting technique. His use of colour here is theatrical: set against a background of serene blue the palette is energised to a new intensity with its white, green, black and cream, each colour vying for supremacy against his more habitual hues. The figures are bursting with life, imbuing the work with emotional charge and drama. The central theme in the guise of a goddess and fallen demon find their corollary here, their meaning amplified by the subject.
The real focus of course, is Durga who is depicted as the heroic figure with her upraised arms, wielding her trident that has just pierced the heart of the demon, standing over the fallen figure of Mahisasura. The power of this painting is in the contrast in scale between the goddess whose almost oneiric figure rises above that of the fallen demon who lies defeated at her feet. In the artist's own words, “I've always wanted to paint a mother Goddess...At Santiniketan in Bengal I could feel the presence of Kali and Durga." (T. Mehta, 'In Conversation with Yashodhara Dalmia', Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 346)
THE ORIGINS OF DURGA
Much of Mehta's work from the 1960s to the 1970s depicted the human figure. However, sometime in the 1980s, when Tyeb was at Shantiniketan, he visited the Charak spring festival of the Santhal tribes in Bengal that inspired Shantiniketan Triptych. During the time he spent at the festival, he noticed the powerful presence of a tribal woman on whom he modelled Kali. “To me it seemed that she had disappeared like the goddess and then I found her sitting inside the hut. I saw it only from outside because I wasn’t allowed in and she was sitting inside silently. But she had a strong presence. I still carry that presence in my mind. I have never been struck by a human being to this extent. That presence dictated to me what Kali should be.” (Interview with Y. Dalmia, Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011, p. 17) Thus followed his famous group of six Kali paintings.
In the 1980s, Mehta revisits the motif of the bull; in 1988 he paints Bull Triptych, a monumental triptych depicting three studies of a bull in a rickshaw. As a student, Mehta would visit the abattoirs in Bandra to sketch the helpless bullocks being led to slaughter. Speaking about his experience, he poignantly says, “I admired the plasticity of the bull of the Sarnath Pillar. I would go to the Bandra abattoir to study and sketch the animal in my school days. Imagine the power of and force of a charging 500 kg bull. If you came in its way, it would knock you down.” (Interview with N. Adajania, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 357) Pained by what he saw during that traumatic time of partition, Mehta’s art became contemplation of suffering and empathy for anguish. It was this that he attempted to represent through his leitmotif of the bull.
Such was the importance of the bull in Mehta’s oeuvre, that his first major painting Trussed Bull from 1956 immortalises exactly this. Evoking visions of Chaïm Soutine’s Carcass of Beef, Mehta says, “As the discovery of the image, the trussed bull was important to me on several levels. As a statement of great energy… blocked or tied up. The way they tie up the animal’s legs and fling it on the floor of the slaughterhouse before butchering it… you feel something very vital has been lost. The trussed bull also seemed representative of the national condition… the mass of humanity unable to channel or direct its tremendous energies…” (Interview with N. T. Seth, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 341)
Much of the iconography that influenced Durga Mahisasura Mardini was therefore already in place.
Interestingly, sometime in 1993, upon being asked to paint the Goddess Durga, Mehta declared, “Durga I cannot do but Mahisasura I can do because I paint the bull. I’ve done just one Durga painting and never gone back to it because it is too sacred an image but because of this I was able to do Mahisasura… In Maharashtra and Gujarat there are tribes who worship him as a god. Ultimately the fact is that when you worship Durga, you also worship the bull, because he is also part of the image. There is a strange twist to this story – good and evil go together.” (Y. Dalmia, ‘Metamorphosis: From Mammal to Man’, Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2011, p. 19)
In the period subsequent, Mehta painted his iconic 'Mahishasura' works: the origin of the series emanates from this historic painting - Durga Mahisasura Mardini.
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