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Artist for all times

Well-known artist Tyeb Mehta, whose work fetched the highest price at Christie's, New York, was in the city recently to release M.F. Husain's autobiography. RADHIKA RAJAMANI caught up with him.

ART FOREVER: Tyeb Mehta and M.F. Husain. — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

TWO GRANDMASTERS of art and friends as well, were in the city to tell a tale - of struggle, success and recognition in the last few decades. One released the narrative of the other. Tyeb Mehta, formally launched the autobiography of his old friend M.F. Husain titled Where Art Thou. Both are not just doyens, they are perhaps the only two artists whose works have sold in crores or thousands of dollars abroad. At the Christie's Auction in New York on September 19 a triptych of Tyeb Mehta titled `Celebration' mounted at the Times House in Mumbai fetched $317,500 - a record for any contemporary Indian piece of art. A few months later on December 1 Husain dislodged his friend from this `prestigious' honour as his work was sold at Rs. two crores (bought by an NRI) - the highest sum for an Indian painting.

Husain's Cinema Ghar was the chosen venue for the launch of the book recently. For Husain, Hyderabad is like a home as he is here quite often. The heartening factor was the presence of Tyeb Mehta - a person whom one hardly gets to see. A man who has lived life practically in isolation, painting canvas after canvas away from limelight, while Husain has been under the spotlight.

Tyeb Mehta belongs to a quiet breed of artists who let the work speak for itself. He has been away from the public gaze. "I have always been a loner and a private person - each artist's temperament is different," he says. Mehta has an impressive resume to his credit - foreign fellowships and stints, numerous shows and participations - national and international and even a film. Very few would perhaps know that Mehta wanted to be a film-maker. And he joined J.J. School of Art to become an art director. Later he shifted his focus to painting. Nevertheless he made a film in 1970. "The Films Division asked me and Husain to make films. I made Koodal - on the life of the common man. One must see it to get the feel of it," he says not willing to divulge much about it. This film won the Filmfare Critics Award in 1970. One was hoping that this would be screened along with Husain's. Unfortunately they were not. The cinematic urge made him write a script on Mahaswetha Devi's novel Hazaar Chaurasi ki maa.

"I wanted to make a visually powerful film which was not approved by NFDC," he says. Later on a film on this book was made by Govind Nihalani. "It is difficult to get finances for movies," he says citing this as the main reason for not making more films.

UNASSUMING ARTIST: Mehta lets the work speak for itself. — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

The triptych Celebration (a huge colourful work), which fetched such a high price, he mentions, was commissioned by The Times of India for the Times Bank in 1995. When the Bank closed down it was auctioned.

"I felt elated when I heard of it. It is good for contemporary Indian painting," he says expressing his feelings on this. Has this new development initiated any change in his life? "Any artist who is seriously committed to his work will carry on and not be affected by all this," he replies.

Tyeb Mehta started painting at a time when there was hardly any awareness of art. There were no galleries too. Today there is an awareness and exposure.

Young artists get opportunities to go abroad. Yet he emphasises the necessity to create an infrastructure for evaluation of art. One must look within the country. At the same time criticism is necessary. "There is no criticism of art in the country," he laments.

Tyeb Mehta is considered one of the powerful artists of the country. His work, language and approach to art is universal. Human emotions like anguish and frustration are reflected in his initial works - images broken with diagonals. The trauma of the Partition was the initial inspiration. "That made me choose my image," he says. In the process, he developed a style and pictorial language, which remains. "I don't work on events but prefer to create an image which becomes a metaphor," he says.

His wife Sakina informs that Ramchandra Gandhi's book on Tyeb Mehta's Santiniketan Triptych (also the title of the book) which depicts the Santhal festival `Charak' will be released sometime next month in Mumbai and New Delhi. It is being printed by Pragati Printers in the twin cities. "Since the painting depicts the festival it is replete with festivity," he adds. "Ramchandra Gandhi was moved by the painting and gave a talk on it. Some years later he came up with the idea of the book," enlightens Mehta.

Laurels have not affected this modest man who is still attuned to painting and will go back to his world of canvas, paints and brush once he returns to Mumbai.

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