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An intellectual and reticent painter

People's reaction is worth a million dollars, Tyeb Mehta tells Bindu Shajan Perappadan

Eighty-year-old and threatening to never paint his dream "image", Tyeb Mehta can give the world quite a scare with that idea, what with one of his works `Mahishasura' fetching a whopping Rs. 6.9 crores at the Christie's auction in New York, the highest ever price given to a contemporary Indian work of art.

In the Capital to receive the Dayawati Modi Foundation Award 2005 for Art, Culture and Education, Tyeb now joins the impressive list of previous awardees, including Mother Teresa, Amitabh Bachchan, Satish Gujral, Pandit Jasraj, Asha Bhosle and Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Well known for his almost regimented working style and `no-straying policy' from his selected `images of work' including the bull, rickshaw, human figures, buffalo, goddess Durga and Kali among others, Tyeb is popular as a `classic pure artist' selecting themes portraying a dark outlook of life. His lines, as his critics point out, represent his thinking, which is very strong and committed.

An intellectual and reticent painter, Tyeb does very few canvases in a year, often rejecting many drafts of the same images before settling into providing the final image and with the passage of time he claims "to have improved and made less rough sketches".

Tyeb's work is also strongly influenced by the Progressive Artists Group, formed by F.N. Souza in Mumbai, which seeks to voice the trails of post-Independence India.

Speaking about his work and what inspires him, the painter reiterated what he had once very famously said: "When you are young, you try to understand the world and as you grow old you try to understand yourself and your work then becomes the essence of these efforts."

"I like to believe that I have evolved for the better over the years and as a painter what matters to me the most is not somebody paying a large sum of money to buy my work. I don't want people to pay a spectacular amount to purchase my work, I would rather that people come to just see my work and react to what they see. That reaction is worth a million dollar."

A stickler for being able to work independently, Tyeb maintains that he has almost always chosen to work alone rather than being commissioned or getting into any sort of collaborations.

"I have almost always stayed away from commissioned works, I enjoy the freedom as an artist and am very keen on keeping it that way," says Tyeb.

Speaking about how he hasn't got any money from the `famous Rs. 6.9 crore auction', the artist asserted that since `Mahishasura', was auctioned by a private collector nothing came his way.

"India needs to put in place a system wherein painters are entitled to royalty, we have to give the artist his due," he says.

Tyeb, sitting in his hotel room, when asked about his dream projects laughs out loud and adds: "I have always dreamed of painting a bull pulling a rickshaw. It would be a 6 feet painting. But painting something of this magnitude and height needs strength and with my failing eyesight and advanced age I am not very sure if I would be able to execute something like that."

Currently working on two panels depicting a falling bull, Tyeb claims that he likes to paint and work with his "pet images so to say. I am not into experimenting too much, in fact I don't stray at all".

Talking about what makes him select the theme of his paintings, Tyeb says: "A lot of my work is inspired by images which stay in my mind. My work revolves with my select figures, which I am partial to."

Tyeb also claims that he is now far away from the politics of being an artist. "I am true to my work and am involved in it with my soul and mind. I would also love to teach the next generation of talented artists who are coming up in India, but they should come to me with the proposal I can't go to them and offer them my suggestions... that wouldn't be in anybody's interest."

And whether Tyeb gets into teaching or not, paints his dream painting or not, his fans would soon get to read about him in a book titled `Tyeb Mehta' which is due for release next year along with a retrospective his works at the National Gallery of Modern Art here.

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