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The Abstract Story

By the 1960s,Mehlli Gobhai,who was moving towards abstraction in his own work,was growing tired of the art scene in New York.

By the 1960s,Mehlli Gobhai,who was moving towards abstraction in his own work,was growing tired of the art scene in New York. The artists he admired most were gradually leaving the city,so his trips to India became increasingly important to him. At the time,he says,India was a “fertile ground” for the art movement. There were — and still exist — a number of things such as yantras (a word derived from Sanskrit,referring to formal abstract designs),the smaller shrines scattered in various parts of the country and Islamic patterns and tiles,among other things,that contributed in various ways to visual abstraction.

Beginning today,an exhibition at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery — situated in the East Wing of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS),Fort — will look at this history of abstract art,as seen through the eyes of Gobhai. For the show,titled “Nothing is Absolute: A Journey Through Abstraction”,the Mumbai-based artist — in collaboration with art critic Ranjit Hoskote — has selected works from the gallery’s collection,other objects from the museum and private collections to explain this journey. “‘Nothing is Absolute’ is a mode of enquiry into the various starting points of abstraction,” says Hoskote. “We invoke multiple contexts in which abstraction began and flourished,as well as the varied philosophical and cultural sources that have inspired abstraction since its advent in the early 20th century.”

Twenty-eight works by some of the country’s best-known abstractionists are at the centre of the exhibition and alongside are ritual and everyday objects from Gobhai’s collection,17th century Islamic tiles from the CSMVS collection,Vidya Kamat’s photographic documentation of wayside shrines in Mumbai and yantras drawn from private collections. The artists whose works are on display include SH Raza,Laxman Shrestha,VS Gaitonde,Akbar Padamsee,Ram Kumar and Gobhai.

As has been the case with the very practice of abstract art,Gobhai’s work,too,has evolved over the last five decades. “My painting has evolved into being less dependent on what is seen and more on what is felt,” he says. “My years of studying anatomy at the Art Students League in New York gradually led me to abstract from the figure,till I came to a stage in my work where the figure was totally dropped,though still lurking behind the form.” Now,lines — or the axis of the human body — are an integral part of his work that often uses little colour.

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Despite some of the country’s most respected artists being abstractionists,the practice itself is often misunderstood. “I believe abstract art is often gravely misunderstood,either as somehow being ‘beyond language’ and therefore automatically ‘mystical’,or as being lyrical and almost decorative,” says Hoskote. But the absence of “a clear reference object”,he says,does not automatically mean the practice is weak. Through this show and its exploration of the history of the art,Gobhai and Hoskote will,then,attempt to familiarise viewers with the nuances of abstraction.

First published on: 26-02-2013 at 02:20:32 am
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