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How an unusual painting by Tyeb Mehta went on to break records

In 1978, cultural preservationist Aman Nath saw the painting develop from scratch

‘Gesture’ by Tyeb Mehta, 1978. Photo: Aman Nath
‘Gesture’ by Tyeb Mehta, 1978. Photo: Aman Nath

Like his Modernist contemporaries and members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, artist Tyeb Mehta drew heavily on Indian mythology for inspiration. While reading the Hindu scriptures, he began capturing the myths of goddesses in his work. In the late 1970s, when Mehta moved to Nizamuddin in Delhi, he befriended cultural preservationist Aman Nath, who lived in the neighbourhood. Nath would often visit Mehta’s studio to see him paint, and at one point in 1978, he not only saw Mehta start on a painting from scratch, but watched it develop. Titled Gesture, the painting was different from Mehta’s other works at the time, breaking away from his signature diagonal lines. Nath wanted to buy the work, and requested the artist to accept the money in instalments.

Mehta agreed and Nath paid the first 1,000 immediately. The next month, he showed up with the second instalment. In the third month, when Nath offered 1,000, Mehta told him the amount was more than the price of the work. He returned 300 and handed over the painting. The work hung in Nath’s living room for several years.

Most of his family and friends did not appreciate the distorted figure in the work. In 2005, when Nath wanted to buy a house for himself, he decided to place his Tyeb work under the hammer to help fund the purchase. As was perhaps to be expected, the sale broke all previous records, fetching 4.2 crore.

When Nath is asked how much his house cost him, he says 2,700, paid in three instalments.

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