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‘Don’t Ask Me About Colour’: A retrospective of master abstractionist Mehlli Gobhai

Untitled painting by Gobhai, mixed media on canvas, c.1970s.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

How to convey that which lies beyond the realm of words? What secrets are revealed by stretching recognisable forms into almost invisible identities? What mysteries call for splashes of colour to transform into precise dark shapes through which a gleam of light manages to escape and illuminate?

To view the lifework of artist Mehlli Gobhai, who died two years ago, is to find oneself on the path of a parabola, climbing hesitantly in one direction and landing with more questions than answers in a different place. Moving around the five levels of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai — where his work was displayed before the gallery was shut due to the lockdown — one got a rare glimpse into the evolution of Gobhai’s body of work: his drawings as a teenager, life sketches, illustrations as an advertising professional, his paintings using different materials, spanning 70 years of interplay between his intellectual, social and artisanal commitments.

“Mehlli’s art focused on the axis mundi, the world axis, the column of light, the sap rising through the world tree — images of ascension were at the core of his work,” said Nancy Adajania, co-curator of ‘Don’t Ask Me About Colour’. The upwardly rising spiral of the building thus served to accentuate the viewing experience. Viewers can now see the show online.

“Mehlli did not avoid colour. He refused to be intoxicated by it,” said Adajania, explaining the title of the retrospective. “In fact, the ground colours of all his later paintings — more familiar to viewers — were chalky pink and pale yellow. He would gradually build up the sienna, umber, charcoal grey over this base,” she said.

Shown for the first time ever, his mixed-media works bursting with celebratory colours — red, yellow, mint green, cobalt blue — came as a shock. “I like colours to be somewhat submerged,” Gobhai had once said. “I like forms to be somewhat submerged, and to come up for air.” This polychrome palette marked the artist’s definitive transition from representation to abstraction.

Abstract mysteries

Pivoting the exhibition was a stone sculpture of the tantric goddess Chamunda, which greeted viewers at the base of a stairway. An index finger on her lips in a rahasya mudra suggests her position as a custodian of mysteries. If Gobhai regarded Chamunda as a deity of abstraction, the master abstractionist gently draws us into his sphere of images to alter the ways in which we relate to the world we think we know. Is that the outline of Krishna playing a flute? And there? A dancing woman perhaps? A woman holding a teacup with her toes?

Gobhai later shifted to dark, subdued shades of sepia, charcoal grey, sienna, while always staying alive to the sacredness of geometry and mathematical harmony. Figures now melted into abstract motions, lines and divisions dominated the scene. “How does one manage the chaos, bring the contradictions into a choreography of reconciliation? That was one of his key questions,” said co-curator Ranjit Hoskote.

Untitled painting by Gobhai, mixed media on canvas, c.1970s.

Untitled painting by Gobhai, mixed media on canvas, c.1970s.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“The line became prominent as a measure of chaos, a geometry that would keep turbulence in check. The swing and weight of the plumb line, the dance of parallel and intersecting lines, become vital gauges of space in his work at this time. These stylised, simplified linearities are also the last vestiges of the figure in his work, traces of an elbow, a knee, a pelvis, as we see from the drawings in his notebooks of that period,” said Hoskote.

Disparate empires

Gobhai’s fixation with abstraction had been an almost lifelong one, but he was never removed from the world of ideas. He read poets, aestheticians, philosophers, and discussed them with friends. “For Mehlli, the abstractionist was very much a person who grappled with ideas and had an intellectual life,” said Hoskote.

In Gobhai’s copy of Wilhelm Worringer’s 1908 classic Abstraction and Empathy, he had underlined a sentence, reflecting his own thoughts: “These regular abstract forms are, therefore, the only ones and the highest, in which man can rest in the face of the vast confusion of the world-picture.”

From all around the NGMA building, you could experience disparate empires of Gobhai’s creative mind. Looking down the atrium from the topmost floor, for instance, his wooden cubes stood surrounded by paintings that were more low-relief sculptures, moving beyond the two-dimensional surface with layer upon layer of canvas or paper. From another level, standing amid his life sketches and advertising work, you saw his sharp and dark geometrical works.

Alongside his work as a leading abstractionist, Gobhai never stopped making life studies. His nude figures, the curators write, are “electric with energy. They convey the body’s pulses and torsion through a choreographic economy of strokes, hatchings and loops.”

Deep commitments

One cannot write of Gobhai’s work without acknowledging his deep socio-political commitments for a safe and inclusive society, be they concerns about street children or solidarity with environment activists and displaced local communities. In one of his 1990 posters for the Sadat Hashmi Memorial Trust just before the Mumbai riots, two figures are entwined in the foreground as a city burns. Accompanying these drawings, the curators found a note which proved prescient: “Don’t wait for grief to bind us. Fight communalism now.”

The artist

The artist   | Photo Credit: Aparna Jayakumar

For the curators, the retrospective was not so much a project as a homage to a departed friend. As they went about with their research, “events and anecdotes leaped up from the pages and connected with stories he had told us,” said Adajania.

These included his rich journal entries. In one such, there is his delightful attention to both fleeting and lasting moments in nature. “Came to a thicket — misty, cool, with the giant deodars faintly visible around me… suddenly, a group of small lemon-coloured birds flew out of the mist… and alighted on my head and shoulders before they realised I was not an inanimate object. Sudden panic and they flew off into the cool mists.”

Gobhai’s pantheistic spirit quietly pulls one into the expanse of his swarthy and muted universe, and in proximity with nature. Life jumps out of these basic geometric trappings and encampments, capacious vestibules to earth itself. His work seems to say: from earth we have come, to earth we shall return. Not without light. Always a hint of sublime light.

The exhibition can be viewed at installation_shots/

The reporter and writer is based in Grenoble.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 1:22:14 PM |

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