x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Artist of emerging India

A leading light of his country's first post-colonial generation of Modernists, India's most feted artist, Tyeb Mehta, cared little for the commercialisation of art.

Tyeb Mehta was perhaps India's most feted painter; his work fetched more than any other living artist on the subcontinent. Despite this he lived very simply; and simply for his art. He was born in the town of Kapadvanj in Gurajat, the son of a Bohra Muslim. When he was still young, the family moved to the Crawford Market neighbourhood of Bombay and he was brought up among Dawoodi Bohras, an orthodox Shiite community. His family were involved in the film industry and he was initially a film editor, but in 1947 he enrolled in the Sir J J School of Art. Here he was introduced to a seminal coterie of modernists, the Progressive Artists Group.

This was the year of partition, which profoundly influenced his work. The violence he witnessed in 1947 remained with him and the figures he depicted were often stark and disturbing. The falling human figure is a constant image. Over time, other recurring images emerged - the rickshaw puller, the buffalo-demon and the goddess Kali. He acknowledged being influenced by the figures of Mumbai's ancient Elephanta caves and the Continental Renaissance painters, Paul Klee and Francis Bacon. His abstraction also alludes to Matisse and Picasso.

He did not sell a picture for 12 years until his fellow painter, M F Hussein, brought a buyer who paid US$30 for four paintings. Financial success was never a priority. He did not take commissions; indeed, for much of his career, his wife Sakina worked to support him. Most of the Group went abroad. For five years from 1959, Mehta lived in London, supporting himself by working in a morgue. In 1968 he visited the United States on a Rockefeller Fellowship and, apart from a year as artist-in-residence at the Santiniketan in the mid-80s, he lived and worked in an apartment in Lokhandwala, Mumbai,where he died. His friend, Arun Vadehra, through whose gallery he sold his paintings, said that such was Mehta's dissatisfaction with his work that "for every painting of Tyeb's that came out, he destroyed seven or eight".

In 1991, Vadehra sold his first painting from Mehta for 100,000 rupees; less than his selling price but this was the result of five or six months work and he was close to penury. There had been recognition - a gold medal at the first Triennial in New Delhi in 1968, the Prix Nationale at Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1974 and the Kalidas Samman in 1988. The commercial turning point came in 2002 when his huge triptych, Celebration was sold at auction for $300,000. In 2005 his Mahisasura fetched a record $1.58 million at Christie's in New York, more than any painting for a living Indian artist.

Yet Mehta failed to get any of the proceeds. Although pleased by the recognition, he told The Times of India only weeks before his death: "I do not paint for money, or for what people think of me or of my work. I am not part of this hyped up 'art world', yet, this changing world outside my window is reflected in my work. I paint of my times, but I am not of this time." He liked to point out that van Gogh died hungry.

Tyeb Mehta was born on July 25, 1925. He died on July 2. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter. * The National