• Curated by Ranjit Hoskote & Nancy Adajania

    Extended through September 18, 2021

    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. Returning to Mumbai, he became a dynamic, enthusiastic contributor to its cultural life, a lively presence in the city’s art and literary worlds. He enriched every conversation with his empathy, nimble curiosity, and kaleidoscopic imagination. In his paintings, Gobhai combined an incisive geometry with a sensuous delight in textures suggestive of flint or burnished leather. His 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.


    ‘Epiphanies’ is an edited extract of ‘Don’t Ask Me About Colour’, the large-scale retrospective that we curated at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, in March 2020, bearing witness to nearly 70 years of Mehlli Gobhai’s art. Cut short by the Covid lockdown, the retrospective ranged from the artist’s teenage drawings, made in 1947, to the extraordinary paintings he made in an arc of productivity from 1974 to 2014. We presented, 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 shocked viewers familiar only with the penumbral tonalities of his later phase. We presented his mixed-media works, rendered in graphite, dry pastel and aluminium powder. Viewers discovered 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 developed a portrait of Gobhai as a participant in culture at large – as connoisseur, designer, and collector. As an advertising professional, he had worked as art director with J. Walter Thompson. His extra-painterly commitments spanned theatre (he trained as an actor with Ebrahim Alkazi), music (an interest inherited from his mother, a devotee of classical Western music; he was a votary of the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions), dance (he savoured Bharatanatyam), and folk culture (he enjoyed collecting textiles, which formed an integral part of the distinctive domestic environments he created in Mumbai, New York, and Gholvad, his rural retreat north of Mumbai).


    ‘Epiphanies’ focuses on the key moments of breakthrough in Gobhai’s art: his celebration of colour in 1974-1975, his move towards a dark palette in 1976, his experiments with dry pastels and aluminium powder in 1981, his improvisation of the ‘constructed canvas’ in the 1990s and his blurring of the line between painterly surface and sculptural contour. 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.

  • Colour

  • Mehlli Gobhai’s paintings from the 1970s, shown here, were exhibited for the first time ever at his retrospective last year. These jewel-like polychrome paintings will surprise viewers who know him through the tranquil, shadowed work of his later phase. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, MG had filled his notebooks with page after page of diagrammatic drawings of Nandi, Ganesha, Krishna and Radha, translating the figure into geometries of line and curve. From 1974 onwards, he embarked on departures from the figure and the still life, essaying a transition towards bold, dramatic abstraction. Boxes open, spilling their contents, like a mind unburdening itself. Hints of a Krishna, playing the flute, emerge from a percussive chromatic polyphony. 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). The mint greens, sunflower yellows, vermilion and mulberry shades of these works, some of them signed in New York City or Mandi (Himachal Pradesh), radiate a surging vitality. A key inspiration for MG, during this period, was the Sri Lankan artist-litterateur George Keyt (1901-1993), whose illustrated translation of Jayadeva’s 12th-century Sanskrit poem of divine love, Gita Govinda, he kept by his bedside. The sinuous curves, the flowing unbroken lines, the petal-like hands of Keyt’s figures inform MG’s drawings as well as these paintings. The other insistent presence in the erotic geometries of this phase of MG’s painting was the Dutch-American artist Willem De Kooning (1904-1997), a seminal abstractionist who never abandoned his commitment to the figure.

  • “I like colours to be somewhat submerged. I like forms to be

    somewhat submerged, and to come up for air.” - Mehlli Gobhai

  • Energy Diagrams

  • MG pursued the objective of formal structure with a singular focus during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Turning his back on his festive polychrome compositions of the mid-1970s, he adopted an austere palette of black, white and brown, occasionally relieved by saturated greens, terracotta and poster reds, ecru, and burgundy. In the spirit of an architect or surveyor, he used the plumb string, mapping his canvases by reference to the clarity of its line and the arc of its swing. Figures, vestigially present in his paintings of the 1970s, receded and left behind only their sharp, geometricised outlines. The imageless image, built from horizontal, vertical, diagonal and tilted lines, took centre stage in his imagination. Fields of darkness contended with shards of illumination, as MG moved towards an evocation of axial linearity.


    MG’s works assumed the form of energy diagrams, marked by scalar weights and vector forces. The quadrilaterals in these paintings are often shaped according to the golden section, a universal mathematical and geometrical ratio found in nature, architecture and music – in spiral venation, the pyramids, and the compositions of Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. Fittingly, the route to these paintings was laid through preparatory cutouts and collages. Experimentally, during this period, MG used oils and acrylics as well as casein inks, dry pastels, aluminium powder, and conté (viewers will encounter a suite of these mixed-media works in the dome above). Recognition came to him in the form of two major museum exhibitions in which he was invited to participate: ‘Marking Black’, curated by Madeleine Burnside (Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, 1980) and ‘Hard Line: Drawing as a Primary Medium’ (Islip Art Museum, New York, 1984).

  • Luminous Darkness

    Luminous Darkness

    “The present exhibition places on view a breakthrough moment, which took place in Mehlli Gobhai’s career during the early 1980s. It is embodied in a suite of abstractionist mixed-media works composed on paper, in which the distinction between drawing and painting is astonishingly blurred. In producing these works, Gobhai employed the materials of the former practice and the methods of the latter, to generate an intriguing cross-weave of line and field, dry and wet: here, crushed pastel and graphite dust have been scumbled together, with an occasional dosage of aluminium powder to generate a muted gleam; the surface then sprinkled over with a mixture of charcoal and graphite powder, which is rubbed in with a wad of cotton-wool. Some of the works are distinguished by lines incised into the layers of pigment with a burnisher, or ruled sharply in pencil. These works are among the earliest intimations we have of the painterly style that has now become indelibly associated with Gobhai.”

     – Ranjit Hoskote, ‘The Prism of Darkness: Mehlli Gobhai, Works from the Early 1980s’ (2003)

  • The Straight and the Slant

  • the constructed canvas

    the constructed canvas

    During the 1990s, MG began to move beyond the two-dimensional surface, adding layers and contours that would make the painting more like low-relief sculpture, more like an architectural artefact. It turned into a scroll, a play of edges, a stratigraphy of masses. At first, he would staple several sheets of handmade paper – Kalamkhush, Nepali, Poona, or Jaipur Kagzi paper – and enact a ‘brutalisation’ on them, in his own vivid phrase. Through additive processes of silting, bleaching, staining, laying of sediments and gouging of runnels, MG ritually performed the processes  of time  and  geology. Calloused by encrustations  and  scarred  by crevices, crimped and folded, the weathered outcome articulated residual archetypal centring symbols like the twinned tablets of revelation, the solar standard, the world tree, and the tau cross. As early as 1994, he had begun to work with a triad of wooden cubes, each a six-sided painting. By the first decade of the 21st century, he experimented with joining two canvases into what he termed a ‘constructed canvas’.

  • Life Studies

  • Paradoxical as this may seem at first glance, given his reputation as a leading abstractionist, MG drew accomplished life studies throughout his life. His nude figures, whether spare or voluptuous, rendered in ink, graphite or charcoal, are electric with energy. They convey the body’s pulse and torsion through a choreographic economy of strokes, hatchings and loops. The life studies on this floor include drawings of the model Gigi that MG made during the 1950s at the Artists Aid Centre (later simply Artists Centre) established by K H Ara on Rampart Row, Bombay. Viewers will also find life studies from MG’s New York period. These were inspired by the lecture-demonstrations of Robert Beverley Hale (1901-1985), Instructor of Drawing and Lecturer on Anatomy at the Arts Students League. Hale, like his student, had abstractionist sympathies. He had been the first curator of contemporary American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1948-1966), in which capacity he had acquired Jackson Pollock’s ‘Autumn Rhythm’ for the Met, over the strenuous opposition of its trustees.

  • Children's Books

  • Between 1965 and 1975, MG illustrated, or wrote and illustrated, 11 books for children or teenagers. Some of these were books on scientific subjects – Ben Kerner’s Electricity, Seymour Simon’s Motion, and The Body Book. Some were folk tales – MG based three of his books on Indian sources, The Blue Jackal, Usha the Mouse-Maiden, The Legend of the Orange Princess, and retold one from an Andrew Lang version, To Your Good Health: A Russian Folk Tale. And some were tales of everyday adventure featuring child or animal protagonists – MG’s own Ramu and the Kite, and Lakshmi, The Water Buffalo Who Wouldn’t, as well as Sue Alexander’s Nadir of the Streets and Sharat Shetty’s A Hindu Boyhood.

  • Related Publications

  • Mehlli Gobhai (1931 – 2018) was one of the foremost abstract artists in India. After graduating from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, he studied at the Royal College of Art, London and then Pratt Graphic Centre and the Art Students League, New York. He lived and worked in New York for over 20 years, returning to Mumbai in the late 1980’s.


    He has held many solo and group shows in India and internationally. His solo exhibitions include 2011 ‘New Works’, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2004 ‘Prism of Darkness’ Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2002 Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 1995 Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 1992 Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 1980 New India House, New York and 1985 Gallery 7, Mumbai.


    His group participations include 2013 ‘Aesthetic Bind: Subject of Death’, Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2007 1st Anniversary Show, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, 2006 Group show with Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi, Bombay Art Gallery, Mumbai, 2004 ‘Subtlety-Minimally’, Sakshi Gallery (curated by Marta Jakimowiez), Mumbai, 2003 Crossing Generations: Diverge 40 years of Gallery Chemould (curated by Geeta Kapur and Chaitanya Sambrani), Mumbai, 2000 ‘A Global View: Indian Artists at Home in the World’, Fine Arts Resource (curated by Bernhard Steinrucke), Berlin, 2000 ‘Intersections: Seven Artistic Dialogues between Abstraction and Figuration’, The Guild Art Gallery (curated by Ranjit Hoskote), Mumbai, 1994 ‘Hinged by Light’, Pundole Art Gallery (curated by Ranjit Hoskote), Mumbai and 1980 ‘Marking Black’, Bronx Museum of the Arts (curated by Madeleine Burnside), New York.


    The artist passed away in 2018 in Mumbai.


    Learn more about the artist