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Meet Tyeb Mehta: The Artist Who Started as a Movie Editor

Tyeb Mehta

A collage of Falling Figures painting and Tyeb Mehta photograph | Source: Vadehra Art & Sotheby's

Despite the struggle for freedom and the sufferings associated with the partition of India, many bounded artists depicted those times with bright colors. Taking inspiration from those dark history pages of India, one such artist who became the highest-paid artist is Tyeb Mehta. He is a phenomenal uncomplicated artist whose thoughts were simple and beautiful, but the paintings he made were a bit complicated to understand due to his modern freestyle. I am here to showcase to you the important and brilliant 20th-century Indian artworks in a way that you feel them and the artist’s spirit behind them. Without spending more time, let us first know about his early days.

Early Childhood and Career Days of Tyeb Mehta.

Born on 26th July 1925 in the Kapdavanj town of Gujarat, the young man moved to Bombay with his family and grew up there. Living in the Crawford market between the Dawoodi Bohras, at the age of 22 years, he witnessed a shocking incident during the partition riots of 1947, which touched him deeply. While staying at Lehri’s house, he eye-witnessed a man lynched by a mob with stones indicated in his later works.

Tyeb Mehta working on a canvas at young age | Source: Sakina Mehta / stir world

In the initial stages of his career, he enjoyed the manual editing works in Famous Studios, a movie inventory in Mumbai. As the day passed and he availed himself of the movie editing part, he found that he was keener to learn arts and that his inclination towards art was even more than his current profession. So it was then that he graduated from J.J. School of Art in Bombay in 1952. During his years of study, Tyeb Mehta met with Akbar Padamsee and became part of the Progressive Artists’ Group along with other artists like S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza, and M.F. Husain, which progressed his modernism art techniques in India.

Bal Chhabda, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, SH Raza, MF Hussain; Photograph | Source: Sakina Mehta / stir world

In 1954, he moved to London and stayed there until 1964, when he was influenced by Francis Bacon’s artworks. In 1959, he had his first solo exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery of Bombay, featuring drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Thereafter, from London, he visited New York City, where he was welcomed for his fantastic works and got a fellowship from John D. Rockefeller in 1968. He took inspiration from minimalistic art from the place. Surprisingly in the same year of his stay, he made a three-minute film that won Film Critique Award in 1970. Finally, he returned to Delhi, stayed in Shantiniketan, and returned to his work city, Mumbai. Till he reached after long experimentation and observance, he was an improved painter.

Tyeb Mehta, Photograph | Source: Sotheby’s

One time, when he was frustrated because of his lack of inspiration in 1969, he relieved himself by just striking the brush on canvas by drawing black diagonal on it. You would be surprised to hear that this form gave the inventory method of Tyeb Mehta painting style commonly referred to as the Diagonal Series.

ArtistTyeb Mehta
Birth26 July, 1925
Death2 July, 2009
PeriodModern India
MediumOil painting

Briefly Analysing Seven of the Famous Paintings by Tyeb Mehta.

1. Falling Figures.

This painting recreates the pains and sufferings of an Indian man who died during the partition riots, painted in 1965. It takes its influence from European Expressionism, where the thick paint on the canvas gave a sculptural monumentality to the art. The artist states,

“There were elements of violence in my childhood…One incident left a deep impression on me. At the time of Partition, I was living in Mohemmadali Road, which was virtually a Muslim ghetto. I remember a young man being slaughtered in the street below my window. The crowd beat him to death and smashed his head with stones. I was sick with fever for days afterward, and the image still haunts me today. That violence gave me the clue about the emotion I want to paint. That violence has stuck in my mind. (Ranjit Hoskote, Tyeb Mehta: Ideas Images Exchanges, New Delhi, 2005).”

When examining the color contrasts, the different blue shades convey dominance, suffering, and misery. The man in the painting falls upside down with a painful face, whereas the green and dark blue shades are the dominating characters here. The artist synthesised the complex psychological dilemma with the political constraints here with the notions of suffering, pain, and trauma of violence. The minimal lines manifest the dark times of social dilemma.

Falling Figures by Tyeb Mehta | Source: Christie’s

2. Celebration.

The artist takes inspiration from a festival held by the Santhal tribe in India, where people dance and rejoice. Images of torture and carnage are not forgotten but transcended. They form the very stuff from which this Celebration derives meaning: as in alchemy, gold has been made from dross. The figures represent the peasantry women who have seen the painful famines and floods. These dancers depict the story of every man and any man on their precarious victory and triumphs, against every suffering they bear. It is a clash of vibrant colors that reflects the momentum of the dancers themselves: though they clash, they run together in a coordinated gesture. The artist also showcases the spirit of strength and unity here. It is true that there are dark clouds, but there is also sunshine following them, and that is what life is all about.

Celebration by Tyeb Mehta | Source: Unknown Author

3. Kali.

Mother Goddess Kali, who is the part of Adishakti, the one who is behind the living activities on the Earth, is the juxtaposition between death and life, good and evil. It is said in Hindu scripts that upon entering the decade of Kalyuga, Mother Kalki, who is Mother Kali, will destroy the demons on Earth for the new beginning of life. Inspired by the feminine character, she wears black skin or Kali skin with the tongue outside to kill the demons. This painting by the artist recreates the Hindu scripts in his famous signature and diagonal style. Here Mehta has pushed and pulled one body on another, which indicates signs of compassion and destruction. This artist’s approach is grim: lumpen, Bacon-like figures—hybrids, deformed and dismembered, flailing arms—cutting diagonal lines across flat color planes, emphasizing their impact.

The painting by Tyeb sold for an impressive 26.4 crores, which is the highest milestone achieved by a modern Indian artist.

Kali by Tyeb Mehta | Source: Vogue India

4. Mahisasura.

Vishnu Puran, dating back 1.3 billion years, describes Mahushura’s defeat by Durga in its 2nd Manvantra. Apparently, Mahushura was a buffalo demon who changed into an outer form to deceive gods. As a result of him defeating Lord Indra, all deities turned to Parvati or Adishakti, who was in the form of Durga and riding on her vehicle, Lion killed him. This artwork by Tyeb Mehta displayed Durga Mahishashur Mardini mounted on her lion, killing the Buffalo demon through the contrasting colors- Red and Green. Where the Mahushura displays evil and mire, on the same side, Durga displays the sacred life force who is the killer of demons.

Here, Mehta starked formal treatment of two different figures with arms flailing, and the fractured diagonal plane contrasts the flat areas of colors. The dramatic paintings showcase the juxtaposition of evil and good, male and female, with a symbolic or visual tension in the work. The diagonal work highlights the monumental sculptures on the canvas and the differences.

Mahisasura by Tyeb Mehta | Source: Christie’s

5. Gesture.

Tyeb Mehta created this painting in the late 1970s of his career, focussing on the ‘hands’ in the artwork. He purified these figures with the use of monochromatic panes of flat color. When you see the limbs of the figures, they are of extraordinary precision, the thighs are compressed with flexed hands, and an empty face with a displaced mouth.

The artwork as the name says from Gesture, displayed a proper rendering of body parts with a face.

Gesture by Tyeb Mehta | Source: Unknown Author

6. The Rickshaw Puller.

In prickly heat and dusty roads, there was a time when people used to fulfil themselves through hand-pulling rickshaws in the streets of Kolkata. In 1983, when Tyeb Mehta visited Shantiniketan, though he was inspired by the ambience of the place, his subject of suffering and pain never faded.

Almost to accommodate the napping figure, the rickshaw leans towards one side as if empathizing with the leaning body of the rickshaw-puller. In bold color planes, the figure and machine are clearly differentiated as two separate entities, yet there is still an intimacy between them. As the flesh passes into wood and metal, the machine begins where the limbs end. The figure of a man sitting in a usual comfortable posture with his crossed hands behind the head is clearly demarcated from the machine or rickshaw.

The Rickshaw Puller by Tyeb Mehta | Source: Christie’s

7. Drummer.

This artwork of Tyeb Mehta is just another version of his philosophy that targets the disillusioned vision of the world where we live. Despite the drums’ sound potentially representing happiness associated with festivals and celebrations, it is metamorphosing into a symbol of social violence. With his unique style of painting, he has always emphasized the contrast of two opposite feelings and deeds. There are flat areas of contrasting color that dominate the work with the economy of detail and strong lines on the canvas.

Drummer by Tyeb Mehta | Source: Artsy


When we look at the paintings of Tyeb Mehta, he was definitely a reformer of Indian Modern Art that brought up minimalism and a combination of figures in one body. His way of contrasting the feelings, or you could say the juxtaposition between two senses is amazing. Throughout his art, there were sparse lines or detailed works of him with one positive side combined metamorphically with the sufferings of the world.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Why is Mr Tyeb Mehta famous for us?

Tyeb Mehta was an Indian abstract artist who brought modernism and used European expressionism to depict real-life incidences and Hindu Mythological characters. The artist is known for his diagonal style and is also one of the priciest artists in India.

What kind of painting does Tyeb Mehta paint?

Tyeb Mehta essentially painted abstract art with deformed human figures divided by diagonal lines across flat colour planes. He broke free from the nationalist ideology of Bengal School and chose modernism instead.

When was Tyeb Mehta born?

Tyeb Mehta was born on 26th July 1925 in Kapdavanj town in Gujarat and raised in the Crawford Market neighbourhood of Mumbai.

Who painted the painting titled as Kaali?

Tyeb Mehta painted Kali artwork which depicts Hindu Mythology. It auctioned for a massive Rs. 26.4 Crores in 2018.

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