Don't ask me about colour: Mehlli Gobhai : A Retrospective
Venue: National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai.
Curated by Ranjit Hoskote & Nancy Adajania
Meherwan Minocher Gobhai (1931-2018), always known as Mehlli Gobhai, was one of India’s most distinguished and pathbreaking abstractionists. Educated at St Xavier’s College and the Government College of Law, Mumbai, the Royal College of Art, London, the Pratt Graphics Center and the Art Students League, New York, Gobhai lived in New York from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. In the late 1980s, he returned to Mumbai and became a dynamic, enthusiastic contributor to its cultural life. Until 2015, Gobhai was a lively presence at exhibitions, lectures, seminars, panel discussions, poetry readings, and in the art world’s informal gatherings. He enriched every conversation with his empathy, nimble curiosity, and kaleidoscopic imagination. He was equally at home with Euro-American art history, temple architecture, and the natural realm. In his paintings, Gobhai combined an incisive geometry with a sensuous delight in textures suggestive of flint or burnished leather. Mistakenly compared to Rothko, he was closer in spirit to Ad Reinhardt. Gobhai’s sources of inspiration included patterned river stones, non-iconic wayside shrines, Chola bronzes, and alchemical metaphors. He regarded colour as a temptation best submerged in the palette of sepia, umber, burnt sienna and charcoal grey that he came to favour.
Playfully titled ‘Don’t Ask Me About Colour’, this retrospective bears witness to nearly 70 years of Gobhai’s art. It ranges from his teenage drawings to the extraordinary paintings he made in an arc of productivity from 1974 to 2014. We present, for the first time, the intense, remarkably fresh polychrome paintings that mark Gobhai’s transition from representation to abstraction. Their percussive yellows, blues, greens and reds will shock viewers familiar only with the penumbral tonalities of his later phase. We present his mixed-media works, rendered in graphite, dry pastel and aluminium powder. Viewers will discover his masterly life studies and his forays into print-making, as well as the children’s books he wrote and illustrated, several of them inspired by Indian folktales.
We also develop a portrait of Gobhai as a participant in culture at large – as connoisseur, designer, and collector. He was, for many years, an advertising professional, working as art director with the transnational agency, J. Walter Thompson. We showcase his work in advertising, as well as posters and brochures he designed for Ebrahim Alkazi’s Theatre Group. His extra-painterly commitments spanned theatre (he trained as an actor with Alkazi), music (an interest inherited from his mother, a devotee of classical Western music, and which he pursued as a votary of the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions), dance (he savoured Bharatanatyam), and folk culture (he enjoyed collecting textiles, especially shawls and rugs, which formed an integral part of the distinctive domestic environments he created in Mumbai, New York, and Gholvad, his rural retreat north of Mumbai). ‘Don’t Ask Me About Colour’ contextualises Gobhai’s art through select exhibits from his collection of rural art and traditional everyday objects, and works by young artists whom he championed. Mehlli Gobhai’s legacy resides as much in the works exhibited here, as in the lives he touched with his warmth, friendship, love and generosity.