After a life of creating some of the most curious paintings that one can encounter, artist Mehlli Gobhai passed away in 2018. Yet, an opportunity to meet him again is here — in a gratifying amalgamation of an exhibition, a podcast and a children’s book. At gallery Chemould Prescott Road, a retrospective of the artist curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania is currently on view, tracing the many movements of the versatile artist. The gallery’s new podcast series, “Stalking Art”, features an episode dedicated to Gobhai, as told by his longtime friend, Mumbai-based author Jerry Pinto. Lastly, there is Pinto’s new book, illustrated by Kripa and specially written for children, which offers an intimate portrait of Gobhai.
Published by Pratham Books, the book is titled The Secret World of Mehlli Gobhai: The Man Who Found Art Everywhere. It starts with a couple of anecdotes set in Gholvad, one of the places that Gobhai called home. Pinto and he walk in this part of Maharashtra, verdant in the monsoon. If some things are thought to be universally loved, such as a lush rainy landscape, Gobhai offers a counter-view. He prefers the drier months, when the hidden geometry of trees is more discernible, unhindered by monsoon’s excess. Gholvad’s muddy fertile waters are also better than the sterile crystal streams of a foreign land.
One would think that Gobhai loved being contrarian. But, there is more to it, as we learn from vignettes and conversations that Pinto replays in his book and podcast episode.
Pinto first met Gobhai in 1992 at an exhibition, little knowing that it was going to be the friendship of a lifetime. After Gobhai suffered a stroke in his seventies, Pinto was his primary caregiver. He says, “I got to know him, the man who gave up his green card to come home and live in the land of muddy life-giving streams, the man who rescued a crow and let it flap awkwardly about his studio, the man who threw his home in Gholvad open to his friends… that’s how I remember him. The rest is friendship.”
Gobhai was happy to blow up the conventions of the art establishment. He “brutalised” canvases, for instance, turning them into weathered surfaces through a variety of techniques. He would unabashedly offer his frank opinion on his peers’ art shows, when it was perfectly acceptable to politely compliment them with a white lie or two. He didn’t think there were any “mistakes” when it came to making art; it was a mistake only if one thought of it that way.
For Gobhai, the boundaries between life and art were non-existent. Everything was art. Everything was art material. It’s possibly why Pinto counts Gobhai’s unusual childhood pet—a slow loris and the hilarious story that surrounds it—as important as the artist’s participation in a group show at the Bronx Museum.
If art is meant to teach us a new way of looking at the world, then Gobhai’s life was art. Pinto says, “All our friends influence and change us but Mehlli seemed to have spent a considerable amount of time thinking out his modus vivendi…He had an opinion on everything: on the correct clothes for the staff at an art gallery, the way to eat a fried bombil, how to light a cigarette for a friend…and he took all these very seriously. Some rubbed off on me and some–a passion for cheese Dufferins, the beauty of a Baby Belling–left me cold. But sometimes I can still hear him speak. When I see how a street seller has created a fractal with hair combs, I hear him saying: ‘What do we need these installations for?’”
Pinto has previously written a book on Chemould (now called Chemould Prescott Road at its new location), which was founded by Kekoo Gandhy and his wife Khorshed, titled The Art Gallery on Princess Street. He is considering another book on the sculptor Pilloo Pochkhanawala (1923-1986), who spearheaded the movement to turn Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall into the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai.
To encourage his young readers, Pinto’s book doubles up as a primer on modern and abstract art. However, one could say that children are often more open to abstraction than many adults are. “They like colour instinctively. They respond to form without asking about function. Their senses are wide open as they have to be if they must negotiate the complex world around them. They don’t have labels. Most people who don’t ‘get abstraction’ use emojis without thinking as if emojis aren’t a form of abstraction, just as much as gossip is a form of literature. And really, most people’s response to modern art is their rage at the prices and their annoyance that they didn’t buy art cheap so they can sell it at astronomic prices. But consider this. When Badri Narayan was teaching art at Bombay International School, he would sell greeting cards that he had hand-painted for Rs 50 and there were no buyers,” he says.
The book offers a counterpoint to children’s regular reading material, which is otherwise too focused on STEM and winning quiz contests. Here, Gobhai appears as an artist who was as playful as he was philosophical. He was the kind of person who once told Pinto that he deeply regretted not buying a book with a title that was something like: The Correct Way to Eat an Ice-cream. It’s possible that for Gobhai, even ice-cream could be art.
On September 4, Pinto will be leading a one-hour workshop at Chemould Prescott Road for all ages. He will take participants through the exhibition, get them drawing and also share his tales of Gobhai.