"A sensitive artist, Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009) was deeply affected by the plight of people on the social periphery. Through anguished human figures as well as motifs like trussed bulls, falling birds and demons, his intense paintings convey the trauma and violence that he saw around him in the society of his day," says Sunny Chandiramani, vice-president, AstaGuru whose upcoming Modern Indian Art auction will feature two rare Tyebs belonging to distinctive yet seminal phases of his career. In his lifetime, Tyeb produced only a few works. As gallerist Arun Vadehra once put it, "For every painting of Tyeb's that saw the light of day, he destroyed seven or eight." To be held on December 27-28, the 41-lot auction will also include works by other leading modern artists such as MF Husain, SH Raza, Jehangir Sabavala, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna and MV Dhurandhar. Among the pair of evocative Tyebs, one is Diagonal from 1973 (hammer price: Rs 12-14 crore). On a walkthrough at the auction house's Kala Ghoda gallery ahead of the promising year-end sale, Chandiramani calls it an "absolutely fresh work." Tyeb's iconic Diagonal series was born out of utter frustration and at a time when the artist had reached a point of creative ennui and despair. Apparently, one day he threw paint on a canvas, slicing it into half in sheer anger. Hardly did the artist know that this gesture would lead him to a breakthrough. "It marked his shift in style and transformed his artistic approach from hitherto expressionist works.
With the Diagonal series, he adopted a completely new style of large solid coloured uneven shapes and also started to work with a flat perspective. The Diagonal became a tool to define space and a catalyst for him to find a truly unique visual idiom that he had arrived at after varied influences," Chandiramani informs. When living in London from 1959-1964, Tyeb was still exploring expressionist subjects. But it was after his move to the US in 1968 as a Rockefeller Foundation scholar that his work acquired a sense of minimalism thanks to a newfound exposure to artists such as Barnett Newman. "This interaction evolved his vocabulary and culminated in him embarking on the Diagonal series upon his return to India," adds Chandiramani.
The Bird's Burden
In addition to Diagonal, Tyeb's Figure With Bird from 1987 (estimated at 14-16 crore) is expected to be another major highlight. As we marvel at the artist's pensive rendition of the tortured human figure and a bird that seems to be flapping and quivering, as if struggling to get free from the man's clutch, Chandiramani says, "The bird was a significant element of Tyeb Mehta’s visual vocabulary. Here, the hapless creature evokes a sense of exasperation, providing an insight into the anguishing experiences and memories that became the foundation of Tyeb's artistic inspiration."