Livemint explains Tyeb Mehta’s relationship to his art, fame and money:
“Unlike other artists he was fully taken up with his work,” says his contemporary, the veteran artist K.G. Subramanyan. “He didn’t worry about some of the things that preoccupied others—like money.” Subramanyan recalls how Mehta fell in love with Santiniketan where he spent two years in 1984-85 as an artist in residence, adding that the stay had a lasting effect on his style.
Maithili Parekh, India representative of the Sotheby’s auction house, underscores the psychological boost that the Indian art market—and the Indian art world in general—received when Mehta’s work broke the million-dollar barrier. “It gave us confidence and pride,” she says. “There were many moments that were important in the evolution of the Indian art market and this was certainly one of them.”
Peter Nagy, who runs the Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi, calls Mehta “the most serious and discerning artist of his generation”, who right until the end maintained a high level of quality. “He didn’t ever water down his work,” says Nagy. “He never commercialized.” Like his senior contemporaries who established the Progressive Artists Group in the 1940s, Mehta employed the language of Modernist painting to draw subjects from traditional Indian mythology. “He synthesized it extremely well,” says Nagy. “But he did it in a limited realm.” Mehta, he points out, basically stuck to the signature style he developed in the 1960s, right till the end.
Art critic Ranjit Hoskote knew Mehta for 20 years and his book Tyeb Mehta: Images of Transcendence, a biographical work that will also provide a new reading of the artist’s works, is due out next year. Mehta, he says, was among those few who believed that dedication to art was the main purpose of his life. It was this level of commitment which for the longest time—from the late 1950s right until the mid-1970s, when there was no commercial resonance to his work and very little critical understanding of it—enabled him to operate in a virtual vacuum. While people generally know him for the price his works fetched, that, feels Hoskote, is irrelevant to an understanding of his art. Far more important is an understanding of what he calls the “epical dimension” of his work—basically, the idea that an artist can be “completely devoted to the internal logic of his art”.
Mehta was a solitary artist who did not crave attention and reward, and this stands out in clearer relief in retrospect, when viewed in the context of some of the more flamboyant Progressive artists such as F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain. “He did not call attention to himself, the painting was the thing for him,” says Hoskote.
The Times of India republishes Mehta’s last interview:
Tyeb Mehtas occupy pride of place in living rooms of the rich and famous from Malabar Hill to Defence Colony. But 82-year-old Mehta himself has managed from his life’s earnings a sparse middle-class apartment, one room converted into a studio, in Lokhandwala, Mumbai. The most highly-valued art in India lean face-against-the-wall in his studio, as the dust and noise of Andheri rises from beneath.
Has the recession affected art prices? Tyeb, who leads the market rate, should know. His last canvas Kali broke the Rs 1 crore barrier, and his Celebration went for Rs 1.5 crore ($317,500) on September 19, 2003. A Christies’s representative says of him, “Tyeb Mehta is undoubtedly amongst our most important Indian artist.”
Mehta finds it an insulting question. “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’, though yet of course, this changing world outside my window is reflected in my work. I paint of my times, but I am not of this time.”
The Million-Dollar Man (Livemint)
I Don’t Paint for Money: Tyeb Mehta (Times of India)