For a 27-year-old, Ali Akbar Mehta, grandson of Tyeb Mehta, is remarkably sorted on matters of art. His show, “Displaced in Time and Space”, recently opened at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi as part of “Three New Voices: Dimensions in Time and Space”. The other two artists, whose works are on display at Triveni till December 20, are: Shally Mahajan, who gives expression to the “innermost impulses” that define her experiences as an artist in a series in mixed media, and Raj More, who draws on the ancient and modern facets of a metropolis like Delhi.
We met at the opening of the show on December 3 which saw many of senior Mehta’s friends and fellow artists trickling in, getting mightily impressed by junior Mehta’s strokes, losing themselves in his nude, muscular figures that, though inhabiting a different time and space, told a story of the familiar universal human quest, and condition. Mehta had to frequently excuse himself from our conversation as it was interrupted by an army of admirers — from celebrated artists, gallery owners, art historians to curators and random onlookers — who wanted to have an audience with the man who had mounted the three “infernos” (oil and acrylic on canvas) at the Art Heritage. His mother, Fatima Mehta, sat in a corner of the small room, occasionally waving at, rising to welcome, familiar faces. His younger brother, Raza Husain Mehta, received guests with a smile even as he went clicking around.
Despite the interruptions, however, we had a satisfying chat that gave me a peek, if not quite an insight, into his world, his works. And what a fascinating peek it was!
For a 27-year-old, Mehta is remarkably calm and composed. The restlessness of his spirit as an artist, mirrored in many of his works, didn’t find reflection in our conversation. He spoke softly and unaffectedly, not in the least bit giving off airs of an artist who has, by all accounts, arrived.
When we met, dusk had settled in. We sat on the amphitheatre stairs overlooking the Triveni Tea Terrace with its hustle of arty types catching up over a cuppa, facing Triveni’s characteristic beautiful stone lattices.
The three paintings on display, Mehta said, were part of a series on themes of violence and identity that explore our concept of hero. This exploration is a part of Mehta’s continuous preoccupation. “It is an exploration of the different facets of violence around us. It is an on-going process,” Mehta said.
That process might have something to do with the kind of sensibility he inherits. Grandson of a best-known painter whose works fetch crores, and son of filmmaker Ketan Mehta, while the young artist’s lineage evokes awe, it also puts a lot of “pressure” on him to deliver. “You are expected to do better each time you do something,” he said.
There is pressure, but Mehta doesn’t let that affect him. Though there might be some similarities in approach, attitude or ideology with his celebrated grandfather, Mehta’s experiences, exposures and interests have been different. He said he was continuously trying to arrive at a stage where he could see things independently, have his “own worldview”.
While he was struck by the grandeur, the mythic scale and the opulence of his grandfather’s works, Mehta said the kind of works Tyeb Mehta and his contemporaries, like F.N. Souza or S.H. Raza, came out with were products of “their age, their times”.
He said: “I want to break out from and go beyond the definitions that have been created.”
The artists of his grandfather’s generation painted to find answers to some of the questions they were faced with. Mehta said he was doing the same, but he had a different set of questions he pondered over in life.
Growing up in a household with an emphasis on reading, he realised it was important to find out your real “drive” in life. Since childhood, he knew that he had to find his own reason to chose a profession or calling. A roomful of people who drew, painted and philosophised made him realise that there was nothing better than being an artist. “You could feel naked without all of that,” he said.
Even as a child, Mehta wondered about the larger questions of life: Where and how did he fit into the world? What work could ultimately satisfy him?
Mehta got the answer to these questions much later in life. Trained in animation, he said he never wanted to be an artist. However, he wanted to combine what his painter grandfather and his filmamker father did, and become an animator. But when he enrolled into the J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai, he realised he never wanted to stop painting. He understood that he needed to prioritise and commit to either animation or painting. It had to be painting. “I’m primarily a painter,” he said.
As an artist, Mehta said he was still trying to define issues like displacement and identities. In general, he is still trying to learn how to “respond” to the world around him. And the media (oil/graphite/Chinese ink/acrylic on paper, digital media, drawing or a mix of all these) he chooses are “dictated” by the kind of paintings he makes. “Medium is never dictated by the artist,” he said.
Long after I saw Mehta’s paintings, his nude figures in a “nuetral” space, removed from any kind of social setting, grimacing in an state of visible pain, holding on to flagrant strands, haunted me.
In a note in the brochure, Mehta writes: “…We are in a liminal age, where human beings are seeking, haltingly, imperfectly, to transform and transcend themselves. All around us we see acts of heroism and despair that are symbolic of this process… My work seeks to explore this idea with the intention of transforming myth in the modern context, to re-examine and revaluate the relationship between man and his social environment that we take so much for granted. It is, for me, a personal engagement in trying to deal with the concept of the spiritual and the material; suffering and rapture; and through them the ideas of life and death; and to understand the mechanics of the rational and emotional desires that dominate our lives.”
Long after I met Mehta, some lines from his poem etched on the wall at the gallery (he’s a poet, too, and you can read some of his poems on his blog, The Meandering Mind) resonated in my head:
There is a churning, a tide
Within and without.
Embrace it, or escape it,
A liminal space — a crossroads of sorts.
Black on charcoal gray wash
Speckled with dull red, white and turquoise.
Gaseous, nebulous, haze whirls around me
Blurring my vision
Continuing to grasp, to grab at something…
For a 27-year-old, Mehta is a thought-provoking painter and a perceptive poet.