A Romantic-Philosophical Enquiry Into the Works of Tyeb Mehta

I had stumbled upon a few works of Tyeb Mehta last fall in Mumbai. It was a while before the awe-inspiring vision of the artist settled in my mind. To be frank, it took me many months to fathom the mysterious forces that make his works as compelling and as they are mysterious.


One senses there is something elemental about them. Not only in regard to the final form, but about the artistic process which may have gone into conceiving the idea. As Eliot says, ‘between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act/ falls the shadow”. Mehta’s works at once rove, and scuttle and scrounge in that “shadow” area.


Grasping this can make one come face to face with the elemental forces that make his oeuvre. But one must not be taken by the mystery of the abstractions, or the incongruity of the expressions. Because of all the things that his paintings are not, and it took me quite a while to realise this, they are NOT exercises in abstract expressionism, how much ever they appear or are made out to be.


From certain angles they appear to be testimonies to suffering, elemental, philosophical suffering; from others, they are exercises in human faith, and from still others, they are a species of art which celebrates the human and divine in us only as art true and faithful to its ultimate tenets can. And this is that what shall be explored and investigated in the ensuing passages.



From Suffering to Understanding


Tyeb Mehta has spent many years in the contemplation of suffering. He has condensed long histories of violence and melancholia into the most austere forms; he has delivered the freight of trauma through isolated figures delineated in planes of flat, pure colour that vibrate against one another without discreet intervals of tonal shading.


These icons are only armoured by and in their doomed heroism: a human being falling head-long into an abyss (picture 1) or  a woman clutching onto a rickshaw (Picture 2); there is a sort of flux which seems to hold the paintings in eternal stasis.

Picture 1

Acrylic on Canvas

Falling Figure, 1995


Picture 2

1995, Acrylic on Canvas

Woman on Rickshaw, 1995


Over the 1980s, he extended his pictorial vocabulary to include howling Kali (picture 3), glutted with carnality and massacre. But, I suppose, this was to be the precursor to his Mahishasur-mardini paintings.

Head (Kali), 1996

Head (Kali), 1996


The Mahishasura-mardini Complex

With the progress of time, the artist returned to the theme of the Mother Goddess which had preoccupied him. In these paintings, the Devi emerges in one of her most potent and impressive forms: that of Durga-Mahishasura Mardini, mounted on her lion, locked in the cataclysmic struggle with the buffalo-demon Mahisha which will end in his death and her triumph.


If Mehta had long been fascinated by the formal expressiveness and the plasticity of this binary image, he has also been seized by the aura it exercises; the sense of awe mingled with terror that it provokes. Simultaneously festive and foreboding, the sacred icon marks the threshold between death and regeneration, the transition of energy from a state of inertia to a condition of dynamic pulsation. (Below)


Acrylic on Canvas

Mahisasura, 1996

The meanings continue to resonate when he translates the icon into a secular frame; while he is preoccupied with the desire to infuse myth into a contemporary relevance, the artist also wishes to evoke the raw, primordial immediacy of the Devi’s presence. In this endeavour, his paintings achieve an extraordinary success: they convey the excessiveness of the Devi’s violence towards Mahishasura, which becomes all the more shocking and orgiastic when juxtaposed with the equally obvious eroticism of their encounter.


The key painting in his Mahishasura series provides one such occasion: conceived on a monumental scale, the battle between Durga and Mahishasura silences us with its grave yet vivid splendour. From this spectacular moment, which is at once frozen in time and throbbing to the beat of war-drums, we receive both lament and prophesy.


The pictorial space that this figure in specific, and others in general occupy, are charged with an “eternal present”. Colour, form and gestures have been fractured against one another in this space, orchestrated into a tension. The figure of the Goddess and the buffalo-demon, locked in combat, enact a sacrificial rite of fertility that has its origins in the remote past of agrarian society: but the archaic terror of their grim battle reverberates through us, and through the crises we ourselves face today. The histrionics of the encounter cannot be reduced to a simple scheme of explanation; but the act of looking at, of participating in this theatre of sacred violence produces a form of heightened attention to the mystery which lies at the centre of our lives – the mystery of love and war – or as the Freudians had put it – the conflict between Eros and Thanatos.


Acrylic on Canvas

Mahisasura, 1998, Acrylic on Canvas


The beautiful Goddess and the lumbering demon are both, after all, primeval deities of the earth: while she embodies the sacred life-force that makes the land fertile and waters generous, he symbolises the mire and the slush, the material of the earth, through which her electricity must pass before it can fulfil its potentiality.


In this sense, the battle between Devi and Mahishasura is a war to death – but it is also, more crucially, the consummation of a sacred marriage.


In the closing moments of the confrontation, when the Goddess plunges her trident through the demon’s form, we see him only as evil incarnate, trampled and overcome; by this point, we have forgotten that he too is a fallen God, that he began life as the handsome suitor of the goddess. (More about Mahishasura in my next post)



Splashed with blood drawn by the Devi’s trident, ripped apart by her lion’s claws, the fainting demon is about to achieve – paradoxically, as it were – union with her (And here I ask the Freudians, why do Eros and Thanatos have to be mutually exclusive?) And she, though still ferocious and intoxicated with victory, has also been transfigured by her encounter with Mahisha. The holy death, like sacred marriage, is an idiom of spiritual transformation.


Mahisasura, 1998


Phenomenologically Speaking


The dying demon represents the self-annihilation by which the individual being merges with the universal Being; the effulgent Devi represents the expansion of the individual being until it has become identical to the Universal Being.


The Goddess’s weapon is enlightenment itself; with it, she emancipates the demon’s higher nature from the gross physical shape that had held it as prisoner. And the goddess could hardly have realised her own redemptive powers had she not annealed herself in the fire of battle. In the binary image of Mahishasura-mardini, therefore, the demon assumes as cosmic a significance as the goddess; held in counterpoint, the one figure derives its value from the other’s presence. The two do not cancel out each other, but grow in a shared stature.


As in the case of traditional narratives, then, it becomes difficult to tell Durga from Mahishasura apart in Mehta’s paintings: their identities blur and overlap in a bewildering symbiosis. The open, roaring mouth of the lion and the twisting bulk of the buffalo are the only clear signs of the two adversaries; and their limbs, dismembered from the frames to which they belong, act of their own accord. The bodies of the protagonists slip and knot over one another, entwined as though in some exalted act of cosmic origami; the disembodiment, the torsion and the inflammation become tropes of war and love.

Mahisasura (head) 1996, Acrylic on Canvas

Mahisasura (head) 1996, Acrylic on Canvas

Reading Gender: The Eternal Recurrence of Man-Woman Relationships


Spare and astute as they are, Mehta’s images do not openly declare their connection with any particular cultural backdrop. And yet, it is only in monsoon ecology that such an image as the Mahisasura-mardini could have been generated. In these rain lands, where nature dominates all effort, humankind cannot survive without the Devi’s sustaining grace. Correspondingly, the paradoxical ability of nature to withdraw them arbitrarily becomes enshrined in the image of the unfathomable goddess.


The belief in the mercurial temperament of the Devi is as central to mythology as it is to everyday life, and informs the manner in which men look, not only at the immortal Feminine, but also at the mortal woman. The desire to possess the Devi becomes inextricable from the paralysing fear of her rage.


It is tempting to interpret Mehta’s paintings as an attempt to approach these disquieting themes; as a project by means of which the artist may probe the motives that lie concealed beneath the ceremonial outward surfaces of his psychic topography and that of his people.


Men and women have not spoken the same language any more than have humans and animals, victims and conquerors, invaders and refugees, renouncers and voluptuaries have gorwn ever apart, divided and debilitated by the predicaments that have chained them to one another.


The image of the Mahishasura-mardini is an unflinching attempt to record the damage that such a situation has inflicted on the Indian collective; it is also an unflinching attempt at offering a way out of an impasse. But it has no recipe for the epicene; it calls from nothing less than the sacrifice and the renewal of the self that has lost its coherence, that has become fragmentary and notational.


One moral of these paintings – if one wishes to approach them as a moralist – is that, if the beast stirs within us, the goddess who can transmute his sensuality to a higher and more dignified purpose dwells within us too.



Psychologically Speaking


The persistence of the Mahishasura-mardini image in the popular consciousness also points unfailingly to the survival of a tenacious psychological complex. In the moment of divine savagery, when the Devi’s trident finds Mahishasura’s heart, there lies exposed a cultural self that is divided between two sets of existential choices: between compassion, emotional abundance and joy on one hand, and militancy, emotional inadequacy and anxiety on the other (as can be gleaned from the three studies below).

5 three head studies mahisasura 1998

Three Head Studies (Mahisasura), 1998






The conflict between the two, then, is a continuing, eternal one.


And yet, the artist doesn’t provide us with a facile, ready-made cue for appropriate conduct. He maintains a discreet and scrupulous balance of power in his subtle figuration: the triumph of the Goddess is not, in fact, assured; it is always possible that, in their animated struggle, the demon may overcome and absorb the Goddess.


But what if the conflict could be resolved in a higher plane of understanding, the paintings seem to ask, or show!


I suppose at some very abstract level, the artist, through the painting invites us to risk out fragile sense of the Self and leap into the centre of the fatal strife.


Once there, it is for us to decide whether we have the courage to perform the healing, undertake the proverbial sacrifice that will destroy the negative syndromes of our individual and collective self while letting the positives rise to a higher plane of understanding and being?



  1. Ranjit Hoskote, 1998
  2. The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das



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