Tyeb Mehta

Tyeb Mehta: Abstract Expressionist, Indian Modern Art Icon

Tyeb Mehta, a prominent figure in the realm of modern Indian art, stands as a testament to the transformative power of creativity. Born on July 26, 1925, in Kapadvanj, Gujarat, Mehta’s artistic journey traversed the shifting landscapes of post-independence India. With a career spanning several decades, Mehta’s work not only reflected the socio-political milieu of his times but also left an indelible mark on the global art scene. This article by Academic Block looks into the life, influences, and masterpieces of Tyeb Mehta, exploring the evolution of his artistic expression and the enduring legacy he left behind.

Early Life and Formative Years:

Tyeb Mehta’s early life was marked by a confluence of diverse influences that would later shape his artistic sensibilities. Raised in a traditional Shia Muslim family, he was exposed to the rich cultural tapestry of India from a young age. His family moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) when he was just a child, and it was in the bustling city that Mehta’s artistic journey took its first steps.

Mehta’s initial exposure to art came through his childhood fascination with the vibrant street life of Mumbai. The city’s chaotic energy, teeming with diverse cultures, rituals, and contrasts, left an indelible impression on the young artist. He later enrolled at the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, where he honed his skills and interacted with other budding artists who were part of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), a seminal collective that played a pivotal role in the evolution of modern Indian art.

The Progressive Artists’ Group and Early Influences:

The Progressive Artists’ Group, formed in 1947, was a collective of like-minded artists seeking to break away from the academic traditions of Indian art and explore new, contemporary expressions. Mehta, along with luminaries such as F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, and S.H. Raza, was a founding member of PAG. The group sought to forge a distinct identity for Indian art, blending traditional techniques with a modernist sensibility.

During this period, Mehta was exposed to the works of European masters like Francis Bacon and Paul Klee, as well as the abstract expressionist movement gaining momentum in the West. These influences, coupled with his own experiences and observations, contributed to the development of Mehta’s unique visual language—one that would distinguish him in the years to come.

Transition to the West and Encounter with Existentialism:

In the early 1950s, Tyeb Mehta received a government scholarship that allowed him to travel to London, marking a significant phase in his artistic journey. London, at the time, was a hub of artistic experimentation and cultural ferment. Mehta’s exposure to Western art and philosophy, particularly existentialism, left an indelible impact on his artistic worldview.

Existentialism, with its emphasis on individual experience, freedom, and the search for meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe, resonated deeply with Mehta. The works of existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus found echoes in his art, where the human figure often became a focal point for exploring the complexities of existence.

The ‘Trilogy’ and the Santiniketan Experience:

Upon returning to India, Mehta continued to evolve his artistic style, moving beyond the figurative to embrace a more abstract idiom. The early 1960s saw the emergence of what would later be termed the ‘Trilogy’—three pivotal paintings that encapsulated the essence of Mehta’s exploration into human suffering and the human condition. “Kali” (1959), “Man and Woman” (1963), and “Gesture” (1965) marked a departure from traditional representations, introducing a bold and dynamic visual language.

During this period, Mehta also spent time at Santiniketan, the renowned art school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. The creative environment of Santiniketan, coupled with interactions with artists like Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee, provided Mehta with a fertile ground for experimentation. The synthesis of Western modernism and Indian cultural ethos became increasingly evident in his work.

The Falling Figure and the Language of Anguish:

One of Mehta’s most iconic and recurring motifs is the falling figure, a theme that would dominate much of his oeuvre. The Falling Figure, as seen in works like “Untitled (Falling Figure)” (1982-83) and “Untitled (Figure on Rickshaw)” (1994), became a powerful metaphor for the existential predicament of the individual in the face of life’s uncertainties.

The stark, angular lines and distorted forms in these paintings conveyed a sense of anguish and vulnerability. Mehta’s use of color, often limited to a somber palette dominated by browns and grays, added to the emotional intensity of his compositions. The Falling Figure, with its contorted limbs and fragmented structure, spoke to the universality of human suffering and the precariousness of existence.

The Partition Series: Recounting Trauma and Collective Memory:

Among Mehta’s most poignant and socially charged works are those belonging to the Partition series. The trauma of India’s partition in 1947 left an indelible mark on the collective psyche of the nation, and Mehta, having witnessed the horrors of that period, sought to articulate the pain and dislocation through his art.

The painting “Trussed Bull” (1963), part of the Partition series, depicts a bull bound and immobilized—an allegory for the sense of helplessness and brutality that characterized the partition. The bold use of color, with the bull painted in a vibrant red against a stark background, heightens the emotional impact of the composition. Mehta’s Partition series stands as a powerful testament to the artist’s commitment to engaging with the socio-political realities of his time.

The Art of Controversy: ‘Mahishasura’ and Beyond:

Mehta’s art was not without its share of controversy. The painting “Mahishasura” (1997), depicting the Hindu mythological figure Mahishasura in a provocative and unconventional manner, stirred considerable debate. The reinterpretation of a familiar mythological theme, coupled with Mehta’s distinct visual language, challenged established norms and ignited discussions about artistic freedom and cultural sensitivity.

Despite the controversy, “Mahishasura” underscored Mehta’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of artistic expression and questioning societal norms. The painting’s powerful imagery and the ensuing debates reflected the complex interplay between art, culture, and tradition in India.

Recognition and Awards:

Tyeb Mehta’s contributions to the world of art did not go unnoticed, and over the years, he received numerous accolades and awards. In 1974, he was awarded the prestigious Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honors, in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the field of art. His work found a place in several international exhibitions, further solidifying his reputation as a leading figure in contemporary art.

Major Works of Tyeb Mehta

Tyeb Mehta, a celebrated modern Indian artist, left an indelible mark on the art world with his powerful and evocative works. His oeuvre, spanning several decades, is characterized by a distinctive visual language that combines elements of Indian tradition with the influences of Western modernism. Here are some of Tyeb Mehta’s major works that showcase the breadth and depth of his artistic vision:

  1. Trilogy (1959-1965):

    • “Kali” (1959): This painting is part of Mehta’s early exploration of the human figure and marks the beginning of what would later be known as his ‘Trilogy.’ The work portrays the Hindu goddess Kali, a symbol of destruction and creation, in a bold and dynamic composition.

    • “Man and Woman” (1963): In this painting, Mehta presents a powerful representation of the duality inherent in human relationships. The use of angular forms and a limited color palette contributes to the emotional intensity of the composition.

    • “Gesture” (1965): This work continues Mehta’s exploration of the human form, capturing a moment of intense emotion through fragmented and contorted figures. The expressive use of lines and forms reflects the influence of existentialism on his artistic expression.

  2. Trussed Bull (1963): Part of Mehta’s Partition series, “Trussed Bull” is a poignant commentary on the horrors of the partition of India in 1947. The painting features a bull bound and immobilized, symbolizing the sense of helplessness and brutality experienced during that tumultuous period.

  3. Mahishasura (1997): This controversial painting reinterprets the Hindu mythological figure Mahishasura, challenging traditional representations. The provocative imagery sparked debates about artistic freedom and cultural sensitivity, highlighting Mehta’s willingness to push the boundaries of artistic expression.

  4. Falling Figure Series (1982-1994): Mehta’s Falling Figure series is characterized by the recurring motif of a figure in descent, conveying a sense of vulnerability and existential angst. Paintings like “Untitled (Falling Figure)” (1982-83) and “Untitled (Figure on Rickshaw)” (1994) explore the universal theme of human suffering.

  5. Diagonal Series (1970s): The Diagonal series represents a shift in Mehta’s style towards abstraction. These works feature bold diagonals and geometric shapes, showcasing his mastery of composition and form. The series reflects a departure from the figurative towards a more abstract and contemplative aesthetic.

  6. Mumbai Series (2001): In the aftermath of the 1992 Mumbai riots, Mehta created a series of paintings that responded to the communal violence and its impact on the city. These works capture the anguish and despair of the time, with Mehta’s characteristic use of color and form to convey the emotional depth of the subject.

  7. Tribute to Van Gogh (1984): In this homage to Vincent van Gogh, Mehta pays tribute to the iconic post-impressionist artist. The painting features van Gogh’s self-portrait alongside Mehta’s interpretation, demonstrating the artist’s engagement with art history and the interplay between tradition and modernity in his work.

  8. Diagonal Cross (1997): This painting is part of Mehta’s exploration of the cross as a symbol. The bold use of color and the dynamic composition contribute to the visual impact of the work, showcasing Mehta’s ability to imbue abstract forms with deep emotional resonance.

Tyeb Mehta’s major works are a testament to his ability to engage with a wide range of themes, from mythology and existentialism to the socio-political realities of his time. His artistic journey reflects a constant evolution, marked by a willingness to challenge conventions and explore new avenues of expression. Each canvas tells a story, inviting viewers to contemplate the complexities of the human condition through the lens of Mehta’s profound and thought-provoking art.

Legacy and Influence:

Tyeb Mehta’s legacy extends beyond his canvas and into the realms of art education and cultural discourse. As a member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, he played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of modern Indian art. His experiences, from the bustling streets of Mumbai to the existentialist circles of London, enriched his artistic vocabulary, making him a unique voice in the global art landscape.

Mehta’s influence can be seen in the works of subsequent generations of artists who continue to explore the intersection of tradition and modernity. His ability to infuse his art with profound philosophical inquiries, coupled with a keen sensitivity to the human condition, has left an enduring mark on the narrative of contemporary Indian art.

Final Words

Tyeb Mehta’s artistic journey is a testament to the transformative power of creativity and the ability of art to transcend cultural boundaries. From the vibrant streets of Mumbai to the contemplative circles of Santiniketan and the tumultuous era of India’s partition, Mehta’s canvas became a mirror reflecting the complexities of the human experience.

Through the Falling Figure, the Partition series, and other iconic works, Mehta confronted the anguish, trauma, and existential dilemmas that define the human condition. His art was not merely an aesthetic endeavor but a profound engagement with the socio-political realities of his time.

As we navigate the vast landscape of Tyeb Mehta’s art, we encounter a visual language that speaks to the universality of human emotions. The legacy of this maestro continues to inspire and challenge artists, critics, and art enthusiasts alike, inviting us to contemplate the profound questions that lie at the intersection of art and life. In this article by Academic Block we have learnt that, Tyeb Mehta’s canvases are not just compositions; they are windows into the soul of a nation and the shared struggles of humanity. Please provide your comments below. Thanks for reading!

Controversies related to Tyeb Mehta

Artistic Mahishasura” (1997): One of the most significant controversies involving Tyeb Mehta’s art was related to his painting titled “Mahishasura” (1997). The artwork depicts the Hindu mythological figure Mahishasura in a provocative and unconventional manner, deviating from traditional representations. The reinterpretation of a familiar mythological theme sparked debates about artistic freedom and cultural sensitivity.

Artistic Freedom vs. Cultural Sensitivity: The controversy surrounding “Mahishasura” raised questions about the balance between an artist’s creative freedom and the need for cultural sensitivity, especially when dealing with religious or mythological subjects. Some argued that artists should have the liberty to reinterpret traditional themes, while others believed that certain subjects should be approached with greater caution and respect.

Responses from the Art Community: The art community was divided in its response to the controversy. While many artists and supporters defended Mehta’s right to artistic expression, others expressed concerns about the potential for misinterpretation and offense, particularly in a culturally diverse society like India.

Impact on Indian Art Scene: The “Mahishasura” controversy contributed to discussions about the role of contemporary art in India, the boundaries of artistic expression, and the responsibility of artists when dealing with culturally sensitive subjects. It prompted a broader conversation about how artists navigate the intersection of tradition, modernity, and cultural norms.

Broader Artistic Impact: Despite the controversy, “Mahishasura” remains a significant work in Tyeb Mehta’s portfolio, showcasing his willingness to challenge norms and push the boundaries of artistic expression. The debate surrounding the painting underscored the complexity of interpreting art in a multicultural and diverse society.

Legacy of Controversy: The controversy surrounding “Mahishasura” is part of Tyeb Mehta’s legacy, and discussions about the intersection of art, culture, and religious symbolism continue to be relevant in the broader context of Indian contemporary art.

Tyeb Mehta
Personal Details
Date of Birth : 26th July 1925
Died : 2nd July 2009
Place of Birth : Kapadvanj, Gujarat, India
Father : Mohammad Hussain Mehta
Mother : Jenabai Mehta
Spouse/Partner : Sakina Tyeb Mehta
Children : Himani and Tanya
Alma Mater : Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, India
Professions : Modernist Painter

Famous quotes by Tyeb Mehta

“An artist’s concern is to capture beauty wherever he sees it. There is nothing more sacred than the life force in every living being.”

“Art is an attempt to understand, express, and communicate. It transcends borders and speaks a universal language.”

“I am an Indian, and I cannot escape that fact. But I am also a contemporary artist, and I want to make contemporary art.”

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures.”

“Art is not a pastime, it’s not a recreation, it’s not leisure. It’s a path, and it’s difficult.”

“It’s not that I start with a concept, it’s that the image comes first, and then the meaning comes afterward.”

“Painting is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on canvas is captured forever. It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”

“The responsibility of the artist is to go beyond what is acceptable to create something that is challenging and thought-provoking.”

“Every artist has to find his own way. You have to take the journey alone.”

“Art is not a commodity, but an intrinsic part of a culture. It reflects the values, concerns, and aspirations of a society.”

Facts on Tyeb Mehta

Early Life and Education: Tyeb Mehta was born on July 26, 1925, in Kapadvanj, Gujarat, India. He moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) with his family during his childhood.

Travels Abroad: In the early 1950s, Tyeb Mehta received a government scholarship that allowed him to study painting in London. During his time in London, Mehta was exposed to Western modernist movements and existentialist philosophy, which left a lasting impact on his artistic style.

Journey into Art: Mehta studied at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, where he was exposed to various artistic influences. He was one of the founding members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), a collective of artists that sought to break away from academic traditions and explore new forms of artistic expression.

Travels Abroad: In the early 1950s, Tyeb Mehta received a government scholarship that allowed him to study painting in London. During his time in London, Mehta was exposed to Western modernist movements and existentialist philosophy, which left a lasting impact on his artistic style.

Existentialist Influences: Mehta was influenced by existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and these philosophical ideas found expression in his artworks, particularly in his portrayal of the human condition.

The ‘Trilogy’: Mehta’s ‘Trilogy,’ consisting of the paintings “Kali” (1959), “Man and Woman” (1963), and “Gesture” (1965), marked a significant phase in his artistic career. These works explored themes of human suffering and existential angst.

Santiniketan Experience: Mehta spent time at Santiniketan, the art school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. This experience enriched his artistic vocabulary and allowed him to interact with influential artists like Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee.

Partition Series: The trauma of India’s partition in 1947 deeply affected Mehta. His Partition series, including the painting “Trussed Bull” (1963), provided a poignant commentary on the human suffering and brutality during that period.

Falling Figure Motif: The falling figure became a recurring motif in Mehta’s works, representing vulnerability and the precariousness of existence. Paintings like “Untitled (Falling Figure)” (1982-83) and “Untitled (Figure on Rickshaw)” (1994) explored this theme.

Recognition and Awards: Tyeb Mehta received several awards during his career, including the prestigious Padma Bhushan in 1974, recognizing his exceptional contribution to the field of art.

Controversial Art: Mehta’s painting “Mahishasura” (1997) stirred controversy due to its unconventional portrayal of the Hindu mythological figure. The artwork sparked debates on artistic freedom and cultural sensitivity.

Later Years: In his later years, Mehta continued to create art, exploring new themes and styles. His works were exhibited internationally, contributing to the global recognition of Indian contemporary art.

Tyeb Mehta’s family life

Marriage: Tyeb Mehta was married to Sakina Mehta. Sakina played a significant role in supporting Tyeb in his artistic pursuits and navigating the challenges that often accompany a career in the arts.

Children: Tyeb and Sakina Mehta had two daughters, Himani and Aparna Mehta.

Personal Life: Mehta was known to be a private person, and details about his family life were not widely publicized. He maintained a focus on his art and often let his paintings speak for themselves.

Influence of Family on Art: While specific details about his family life might be limited, it is not uncommon for an artist’s personal experiences, relationships, and family dynamics to influence their work indirectly. The themes of human suffering, existential angst, and the impact of historical events found in Mehta’s art may have been shaped, in part, by his own experiences and observations.

Final Years of Tyeb Mehta

Late Carrer Achievements: In the later years of his career, Tyeb Mehta continued to receive recognition and acclaim for his contributions to the art world. His paintings were featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, both in India and internationally.

International Exhibitions: Mehta’s works were showcased in prestigious international exhibitions, contributing to the global appreciation of Indian contemporary art. His paintings became sought after by collectors and art enthusiasts around the world.

Legacy and Influence: Tyeb Mehta’s artistic legacy continued to grow, influencing subsequent generations of artists. His unique visual language, characterized by bold forms and deep emotional resonance, left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern Indian art.

Recognition and Awards: Mehta’s significant contributions to the art world were acknowledged with various awards and honors. His impact on the art scene was recognized not only in India but also on the global stage.

Private and Personal Life: Tyeb Mehta was known for being a private individual, and details about his personal life, especially in his later years, were not extensively publicized. The focus remained on his art and his enduring impact on the art community.

Artistic Exploration: In his later works, Mehta continued to explore new themes and styles, showcasing an ongoing commitment to artistic experimentation. His ability to evolve and engage with contemporary issues kept his art relevant and thought-provoking.

Passing Away: Tyeb Mehta passed away on July 2, 2009, at the age of 84, leaving behind a profound legacy in the world of art. His death marked the end of an era in Indian art, but his influence continued through the artworks that remain as powerful expressions of his vision.

Posthumous Recognition: Even after his passing, Tyeb Mehta’s works continued to be celebrated in posthumous exhibitions and retrospectives. These events served to further highlight the enduring significance of his contributions to the art world.

Auction Records: Tyeb Mehta’s paintings gained significant value in the art market, and some of his works achieved high prices at auctions, reinforcing his status as one of the most influential artists in Indian contemporary art.

Academic References on Tyeb Mehta


“Tyeb Mehta: Triumph of Vision” by Yashodhara Dalmia: This comprehensive monograph provides insights into Tyeb Mehta’s life, career, and artistic evolution. It includes a detailed analysis of his major works and their significance in the context of Indian and global art.

“Tyeb Mehta: Ideas, Images, Exchanges” by Ranjit Hoskote: Ranjit Hoskote’s book delves into Tyeb Mehta’s artistic journey, exploring the intersections of his art with various cultural and intellectual influences. It offers critical perspectives on Mehta’s works.


“Tyeb Mehta: A Modern Indian Master” by Georgina Maddox (Art India Magazine): This article, likely published in Art India Magazine, may offer critical insights into Tyeb Mehta’s artistic contributions and the impact of his work on the Indian art scene.

“Tyeb Mehta: A Portrait of the Artist as a Revolutionary” by Rosalyn D’Mello (The Hindu): This article may provide a more journalistic perspective on Tyeb Mehta’s life and art, exploring his revolutionary role in the context of the Indian art world.

“Tyeb Mehta’s Untitled (Figure on Rickshaw) at Sotheby’s” by Deepanjana Pal (Firstpost): This article may focus on a specific artwork by Tyeb Mehta and its auction at Sotheby’s, offering insights into the market reception and value of his paintings.

“Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura: An Artwork that Broke the Mould” by Dinesh Vaghela (The Quint): This piece might discuss the controversy surrounding Tyeb Mehta’s painting “Mahishasura” and its significance in the broader context of Indian art and culture.

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