- Tyeb Mehta
- Signed and dated 'TYEB / 78' on reverse
- Oil on canvas
Collection of Aman Nath, New Delhi
Osian's Mumbai, 2 December 2005, lot 7
In the mid to late 1970s, Tyeb Mehta painted a sequence of works titled ‘Gesture’ which brought the focus to the ‘hands’ of his figures. Gesture (1978) is a definitive example of this series. Mehta purified his figures, painting them in a succession of monochromatic panes of flat colour. With different body parts rendered in distinctive hues, the figure appears as if it is splintering and freeing itself from one single form.
Mehta, like many artists of his generation had been witness to the tragic events that took place in India during and after Partition and his memories of this period clearly had an immense impact on him and the vocabulary of his art. Growing up in the Muslim area of Bombay as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra minority, Mehta would have empathised with the marginalised. The Muslims who had chosen to stay in India after Partition were caught between two worlds, they were regarded as traitors by the new Islamic homeland of Pakistan and 'unreliable resident aliens by Hindu majoritarian forces in India' (ibid., p. 8). Mehta’s art is a contemplation of suffering and shows an empathy with human anguish. “There are chiefly two kinds of figures in Tyeb’s iconography: one kind is born of terror, and encompasses his victim types; the other kind is born of kindred hope and awe, and these are his ambiguous divine/ demoniac figures.” (ibid., p.16) In this current painting, we see the first type as per Ranjit Hoskote’s classification.
Characteristically of Mehta, the focus here is on a single figure. In an interview in 1997, he reflected, “I find the minute, the second image comes into the picture it becomes a narrative… I have done it in a few paintings here and there, but by and large I am not interested in that area…” (In conversation with N. Tuli, The Flamed Mosaic: Indian Contemporary Painting, Grantha Corp, Bombay, 1997, pp. 332-333)
Multiple influences are at play here. At first glance, one is reminded of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Popes. The multiple hands and their crusade are suggestive of the ancient Indian form of Nataraj with manifold images conveying movement. In 1968, Mehta was awarded a Rockefeller scholarship that took him to New York. At the Museum of Modern Art, Mehta came across the work of the American abstract painter Barnett Newman. He greatly admired the way that Newman and in particular his Onement series broke up the picture plane by using blocks of pure saturated colour. Mehta uses these different stimuli and twists them in his own inimitable manner. Unlike Newman, Mehta did not wish to abandon the figure from his work. While Newman’s zips divided the canvas into two halves, Mehta’s angular lines dissected the canvas into jagged segments that appear to both amalgamate and diverge at the same time. This particular convention was unique to Mehta.
We also see a Kandinsky-like play of colours. Mehta is known to have received a copy of the Russian master’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art by his teacher at the J.J. School of Art, Shankar Palsiker. The effective use of orange in this work echoes Kandinsky’s sentiments, “Warm red, intensified by a suitable yellow, is orange. This blend brings red almost to the point of spreading out towards the spectator... orange is red brought nearer to humanity by yellow…” (W. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1997, p. 41)
Colour is Mehta’s winning device. The individually coloured parts help delineate the image, define it and purposefully set it apart from the background so that there is a renewed focus on the subject. This technique was also prevalent in the artist’s trussed bulls of the 1950s. Twenty years hence, Mehta clearly appears to have come full circle in his artistic progression, taking the very best from his early work and setting the stage for what was to come in the 1980s – striving towards a critical balance between figuration and abstraction.
A major figure in the tradition of Indian modernism, Mehta was loosely associated with the pioneering Progressive Artists’ Group. His work however, stood apart from his peers in distinctive ways. While for Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza, the woman and the female body was a recurring motif and a lifelong obsession, Tyeb was at the other end of the spectrum. He was not concerned with the gender of his figures. “…the reference to the human figure is essential to my work, not as an anatomical body, but as a form which helps me to create space. I don’t paint man or woman. I paint the human image, its plasticity.” (Tonalities: A Conversation with Tyeb Mehta and Nancy Adajania, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images and Exchanges, ed. by R. Hoskote, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2005, p. 359)
Correspondingly, while colour field painting and abstract expressionism inspired both Mehta and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, another member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, they both reworked this inspiration differently. While Gaitonde strove for silence and contemplation, Mehta was all for movement and noise. The inquiry he verbalised for himself was – “How could he articulate his paintings in such a way as to savor the sheerness and radiance of large areas of colour, the sensuous pleasure of colour-as-field, without sacrificing the figure?” (R. Hoskote, p. 5)
Mehta spent most of his life in Bombay but lived in Delhi between 1965 and 1979 where he was a key figure in the art scene of the Capital. This was a particularly productive chapter of his life and a successful one at that. From a solo exhibition at Kumar Gallery in 1966 to being awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1968 to the writing and directing of Koodal – an experimental film which won him the Filmfare Critics Choice Award and led to being awarded a merit certificate at the Biennale de Menton in Paris in the mid-70s; this was an illustrious time for the artist. It is to this period of activity that the current work belongs.
In Gesture (1978) Mehta strives for perfection. An interesting anecdote recorded in his monograph provides insights into his work ethic, “He has never forgotten an observation made by the legendary vocalist, Bhimsen Joshi – whom, he met … to the effect of riyaz, the private process of preparation, is the site of experimentation and possible errors; but the public performance in concert must display mastery. When the painting is ready, there can be no allowance for error: it is a fine balance that Tyeb treads. (ibid., p. 4) The purity of his line and the artist's deep understanding of colour combinations to create balance and tension are revealed beautifully in this current example.
This work was previously in the collection of Mr. Aman Nath, a renowned Indian writer, hotelier, and architectural restorer and cultural impresario based in New Delhi. He was one of the founding members of INTACH, the leading heritage and conservation organization, headquartered in Delhi. He became the arts editor for the magazine India Today, and later remained curator of "Art Today"—an art gallery of the India Today group, situated at Connaught Place, New Delhi. Mr. Nath is also the co-founder and co-chairman of the Neemrana Hotels chain in India, along with the late Francis Wacziarg. Both are today credited for pioneering the heritage hotels movement in India. He is a famed writer having authored several books including the national award-winning Jaipur: The Last Destination, a book on the frescoes of Shekhawati and another on the arts and crafts of Rajasthan.
Mr. Nath is well-known for his fine eye for art and amassed a sizeable art collection. He bought this work directly from the Tyeb Mehta in three installments of Rupees 1000, 1000 and 700 in 1978-79. Reminiscing about this purchase, he said, “Gesture (1978) is the second work of art I ever bought and it was at the start of my early collecting days as a youth. I used to live in Nizamuddin East which is where Tyeb also lived as a close neighbour. He was very fond of me as I was of him. I had many interactions with him, talking about art and his work. We had a conversation about his famed 'diagonal.' This was the very early stages of his career when he was still trying to resolve it. I bought this work at the time when he was moving back to Bombay.” (In conversation with Sotheby’s, September 2017)
Gesture was last offered on the open market twelve years ago. Ever since, it has remained in a distinguished private collection. At the time of its sale, this work set a world record for the highest price for a work of Indian Modern art at auction in India. This was preceded by another historic sale just six months prior when Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura became the first Modern Indian painting to fetch more than $1 million. These works are etched in history as landmark events, triggering a paradigm shift in the Indian art market.