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Svaraj: A Journey with Tyeb Mehta's Shantiniketan Triptych

 Tyeb Mehta is one of the greatest artists of the Contemporary Indian Art history. A new book titled Svaraj: A Journey with Tyeb Mehta's Shantiniketan Triptych published by the Vadhera Art Gallery and authored by Ramchandra Gandhi is the first of its kind in the sense that it records a double journey of inquiry: into the symbolism of Tyeb Mehta's 'Shantiniketan Triptych' painted in 1985, and the deeper meaning of 'Svaraj' or self realisation.

In this analytical study of a single work of a prolific painter, the author through the loosely strung essays converses with the canvas as well as with an imagined interlocutor to present the details of the image. In the process, he presents complex philosophical concepts. The author has sought to bring to his understanding of a great work of contemporary Indian painting, and its historical context, the perspective of Indian philosophical spirituality, especially Advaita Vedanta.

Tyeb Mehta was born in Kapavanj, Gujarat in 1925. He studied at the Sir J. J. School of Art between 1947-52. He received the J. D. Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship in 1968. Between 1969-70 he wrote and directed 'Koodal' an experimental film, which won the Filmfare Critics Award. He held his first solo exhibition in Mumbai in 1959. He was Artist-in-Residence at the Viswa Bharati University, Santi Niketan between 1984-86. He received the Kalidas Samman from the Madhya Pradesh State Government in1988.

Tyeb Mehta has been invited to participate in several exhibitions including 'Art Alive', Northampton Museum, U.K.-1960, Commonwealth Institute, London-1968; First Indian Triennial, New Delhi-1968; 'Ten Contemporary Painters', M.I.T. and Jersey State Museum, Trenton-1965; II Biennial Internationale de Menton and Festival Internationale de la Peinture, Cagne-sur-Mer-1974; 'Modern Indian Painting', Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.; 'India: Myth and Reality - Aspects of Modern Indian Art', Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and Festival of India, Royal Academy of Art, London-1982; Festival of India, Grey Gallery, New York-1985; 'Contemporary Indian Art : The Herwitz Collection', Worcester Art Museum, Worcester-1985-86; 'Coups de Coeurs', Geneva-1986; Festival of India, Tokyo-1988; 'Seven Indian Painters', Gallery Le Monde de d'art, Paris-1994; 'Tryst with Destiny : Art from Modern India', Singapore Art Museum, Singapore-1997; 'Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis', Tate Modern, London-2001.

Using Tyeb Mehta's 'Shantiniketan Triptych' as the focal point, philosopher and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramchandra Gandhi, has provided attention to meticulous details of the painting, without losing sight of the larger picture. The author has examined other major images such as the rickshaw-puller, the falling man and the trussed bull that recur in Mehta's work by linking them with 'Shantiniketan Triptych' in terms of philosophy and sensibility. The journey overlaps, illuminating one another because, as Ramachandra Gandhi shows, the work is a three-paneled portrait of distortion, of self-awareness, necessitated by exclusivist self-identities, individual and collective, secular and religious, and the recovery of integrity of selfhood in inclusive self-realization. It is about the realization that we are things, and nothingness too.

The inquiry inevitably throws light on the flawed independence of India in 1947, self-realization distorted by exclusivist communal self-identities and the ongoing war between secular insensitivity and religious fundamentalism.

Tyeb Mehta painted the 170X445 cm painting in 1985 when he was artist-in-residence at Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University. Gandhi then taught comparative religion at Visva Bharati University. The painting represents Charakpuja, an end-of-spring ritual observed by Santhal tribe and other marginalized communities of West Bengal. The central panel shows a sacrificial site near the vertical charak pole with a seated woman and goat in close, protective embrace and the ritual sacrificer's shadow looming over the scene. This is flanked on the left by a panel showing a group of drummers and dancers and a figure floating on the top right corner of the painting, and on the right, a group of people pulling a rope and seated observers watching the ritual. Here also, there is a figure floating on top.

The observations made by the author on androgyny, the ethical values of the tender embrace between the seated mother figure and the goat and the symbolism of the yogic pose by the disembodied head in the foreground of the central panel (of the painting) are a pointer to the research that has gone into the book.  

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