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Unveiling of an Indian masterpiece at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, has just unveiled a famous work by Tyeb Mehta, one of India's most distinguished living artists, for public viewing.

Mahisasura (1997, acrylic on canvas), one of the legendary artist's best known works, will be on view at the MFA till September 2007. The work stands for the mastery of this renowned Indian artist over the medium.

The masterpiece by him unveiled at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, depicts the Hindu goddess Durga, mounted on her lion, wrestling the buffalo demon Mahisasura. As the legend goes, entranced by Durga's beauty, Mahisasura wanted to marry her, but she would only accept him if he defeated her in battle. The battle between goddess Durga and the demon lasted ten thousand years, until Durga beheaded Mahisasura. Artists usually show the culmination of the story, when Durga beheads Mahisasura. Tyeb Mehta inserts ambiguity into the tale, depicting Durga embracing Mahisasura even as she struggles to vanquish him.

At the Saffronart Modern Indian Art Auction, the artist's two paintings on the goddess 'Kali' done in 1989 and 2002 have stolen the limelight. The artist has painted only a handful of Kali works in his long and illustrious career. The scale and drama he imparts to the canvas makes his work stand out. One of the Kali works done in Charcoal on paper went for $52,900 (Rs.2,116,000) in te recent Summer Online Auction (June 6-7, 2007) whereas the winning bid for another 'Kali', oil on canvas, was $987,500 (Rs.39,500,000) in Summer Online Auction (May 2005).

Tyeb Mehta's paintings create an ethos of brooding, sombre consciousness. His paintings pose unanswered and unanswerable questions about the human condition. His large body of work spanning over six decades has established him as one of the greatest names of modern Indian art. Among his significant works are 'Santiniketan Triptych' painted in 1985, a three-paneled portrait of distortion, of self-awareness, necessitated by exclusivist self-identities, individual and collective.

An early member of the Progressive Artists' Group, he freely adopted styles and techniques associated with modernist and avant-garde art movements in Europe and North America while simultaneously dipping deep into India's artistic traditions. While he is known to have adopted the pictorial language of European art through the 1950s and '60s, he switched to 'Indian' themes and subjects through the '70s and '80s. So, from painting images of rickshaw drivers and the trussed bull, he narrowed down his search for the eternal in the complex, layered images and concepts of Hindu mythology.

Through the '90s his imagination was captured by the myth of the Devi (Goddess) - as Durga, Kali, Mahishasura Mardini, the slayer of the demon Mahishasura (the different incarnations of the goddess). As a young painter he had wanted to paint the Mother Goddess. 'Mahishasura' is based on the tale of Goddess Durga slaying the demon with the artist depicting Mahishasura a sympathetic figure embracing the goddess, symbolizing the demon's transformation after uniting with the divine. He uses ancient images in a modern sense, blending the demon Mahishasura into the butcher's buffalo.

Symbols like a trussed bull and a red shawl come directly from his familiarity with Indian traditions attitudes and his knowledge of the mythology. To add to the drama, he is known for using the technique of creating multiple images to convey motion. This is obvious in the many arms of the Nataraja (the dancing God) that represent the movement of the hands in the Bharatanatyam dance form.

Mahisasura by Tyeb Mehta is the first in a series of unveilings of contemporary South Asian paintings as part of the MFA's new initiative to exhibit the most outstanding contemporary art from South Asia.

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