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A new show that highlights the many shades of artist Mehlli Gobhai

The latest exhibition highlights significant phases from the master abstractionist's career, whether it is his polychrome paintings or the energy diagrams and children’s books

Mehlli Gobhai wrote and illustrated many children’s books, several of them inspired by Indian folktales. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road
Mehlli Gobhai wrote and illustrated many children’s books, several of them inspired by Indian folktales. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road

Colour, in all its shades and forms, can be seen at Chemould Prescott Road these days. Whether it is the austere blacks and browns, with a dash of green or burgundy, or the polychrome paintings with their swirls, sweeps or drips of paint—colours break on the viewer like a wave. Though one always knew of artist Mehlli Gobhai as an abstractionist par excellence, but when one sees a range of works from his 70-year-long career, the power of his paintings hits anew. In the latest exhibition, Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies, A series of breakthrough moments, curators Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania have highlighted significant phases from his career, whether it is the teenage drawings, polychromatic paintings, life studies or the energy diagrams and children’s books.

The show at Chemould Prescott Road is an edited version of the mammoth retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, which came to an abrupt halt last year due to the nationwide lockdown induced by the pandemic. At the NGMA, Hoskote and Adajania had presented paintings, among other things, made during the arc of his productivity from 1974 to 2014.

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According to Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road, the current exhibition might be bite-sized in comparison to the grand scale of the NGMA, but it has not been compromised in any way. “The Mehlli Gobhai estate has a sizeable number of paintings still with them, which represent a major phase of his practice. It represents each stage quite emphatically. So, imagine yourself walking into a small museum in England—I, for one, was reminded of The Hepworth Museum in Yorkshire, which had a beautiful show of Howard Hodgkin,” she elaborates. In Gandhy’s view, this show is similar to that in its essence, as it creates a fulfilling encounter for the viewer by presenting a rather varied practice of a great artist.

An installation view of the exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road
An installation view of the exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road

Just like at the NGMA, at Chemould too, one will get to see the remarkable polychrome paintings by Meherwan Minochar Gobhai, or Mehlli Gobhai as he was known. These mark his transition from representation to abstraction. According to the curators, their percussive yellows, blues, greens and reds shock viewers familiar only with the penumbral tonalities of his later phase.

“Boxes open, spilling their contents, like a mind unburdening itself. Hints of a Krishna, playing the flute, emerge from a percussive chromatic polyphony,” they further write. “The anatomical portrait and the dancing figure are starting points for some of these watercolours, oils, and mixed-media works. A delight in painterliness is evident in the sweeping brushwork, the swirling gestures, the drips of paint. MG drew on the chromatic sumptuousness of Indian popular culture and Rajput miniatures at this time, and had also immersed himself in the colour theories of Johannes Itten (1888-1967) and Josef Albers (1888-1976).”

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These give way to the energy diagrams, from the late 1970s and 1980s, which are a stark departure from the polychrome works. The yellows and reds are replaced by a more muted palette of black, white and brown, livened up by saturated terracotta and ecru. The “imageless image” in his canvases from this phase are not created through figures but through masterful use of lines. In The Prism of Darkness: Mehlli Gobhai, Works from the Early 1980s (2003), Hoskote writes about a breakthrough moment in Gobhai’s practice, from the early 1980s, when he created a suite of abstractionist mixed-media works composed on paper, “in which the distinction between drawing and painting is astonishingly blurred.”

‘Untitled’, 60 x 40 inches, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road
‘Untitled’, 60 x 40 inches, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road

Hoskote further elaborates on the shifts in Gobhai’s practice in his 2018-Scroll essay, “He coursed between canvas and paper, and among various kinds of hand-made paper. He extended his practice to sculptural objects, painted wooden blocks arranged in changing constellations...Through all these shifts, Gobhai remained true to one compass point: his devotion to an abstraction conceived of as an art of refusal… Gobhai founded his art on the renunciation of the figure, of narrative, and of a broad palette of colour.”

The exhibition also showcases life studies and children’s books, which he wrote and illustrated between 1965 and 1975. Some of these were on scientific subjects, while others were inspired by folktales. According to Gandhy, the books highlight the effective use of drawings to communicate gestures, without resorting to a lot of text. “And with his life studies, they did not come out into the open, but it was an essential practice to keep his hand trained and catch the essence of how his hand moved while drawing,” she says.

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Epiphanies is as much a testament to Gobhai’s work as it is about his friendships with Gandhy, Hoskote, artist Sheetal Gattani, poet Jerry Pinto, and more. The artist, who passed away in 2018, was a multifaceted personality —he had trained as an actor with Ebrahim Alkazi, was deeply interested in classical music and dance, a collector of textiles and had worked in advertising. “Mehlli was not what I would call a jovial fellow, but he had a very joyous side to him. He liked to speak of himself as a loner, and I am quite sure that he did like his own company when at work, as his practice was intense and time-consuming,” recalls Gandhy. Having said that, Gobhai loved his friends, and was quite an entertainer. The gallerist reminisces how he would have people for lunch, be invited reciprocally, and was a wonderful conversationalist. “Mehlli was quite openly gay, but he always loved to describe his women friends, speaking quite deeply about their beauty. He would often end with, ‘If she was not married to so and so, I would have…’, eliciting an eye roll from me, a guffaw from him, and so it went,” she says.

Gattani too has fond memories of Gobhai. She was introduced to him by Prabhakar Barve, who told Gattani to show her to Gobhai as there were some concerns that he felt were kindred to both. “So, I went as a young artist to see this ‘senior artist’-- he hated being known as that. But within a visit, the gap in age dropped and we became friends. Conversations with Mehlli were insightful. He had a way of asking questions—not necessarily that he knew the answers of —but while I was groping with getting the right words, he would complete the sentence, and sometimes vice versa.”

The exhibition can be viewed till 18 September, 2021

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