Mehlli Gobhai passed away in 2018, aged 87, leaving his colours behind. Some 30 years ago, he told his friends, art critics Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania, that he was suspicious of colour, didn’t like their “seduction” and used only that colour “without which a painting could not survive”. The end results were Gobhai’s best-known abstract paintings in earthy shades – grey, like the surface of a Buddhist rock cave or brown, like a river pebble.
It’s why Gobhai’s lesser-known polychrome paintings from the 1970s come as a real surprise. This set is ecstatic, unlike his earthy, meditative works. They have come into view for the first time in the artist’s first retrospective spanning 70 years of his art, curated by Hoskote and Adajania, at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art (the NGMA is currently closed till March 31 owing to Covid-19 outbreak). “It is a rare treat,” says Adajania, “to see these polychrome paintings suffused in a nocturnal Krishna blue, lacquer red, sunflower yellow and sap green. The sweeping, swirling brushstrokes and the jewel-like colours also reflect Mehlli’s preoccupation with Rajput and Pahari paintings.”
The title “Don’t Ask Me About Colour”, which comes from a text by Ad Reinhardt, known for his luminous black paintings, and one of Gobhai’s heroes, is deliberately provocative, conveying both Gobhai’s art and temperament. “He was a contrarian, always defiant and delightfully cantankerous,” says Adajania.
Meherwan Minocher Gobhai, or Mehlli as he was called, was born in Mumbai in 1931. He lived between a seaside bungalow in Versova and Darbhanga Mansion on Cumballa Hill, spending his summer holidays at hill stations. Some of the earliest drawings in his private collection were made while vacationing in Kodaikanal, aged 16. These were homey portraits – of family, himself, horses and even the hotel cat.
The curators note that his interest in the human form was furthered under the mentorship of artist Shiavax Chavda, whose wife, Khurshid Vajifdar, was an accomplished classical dancer. In that household, where recitals and concerts were a regular feature, Gobhai made swift sketches of the artistes in motion. He would eventually connect the gestures and stances of Bharatanatyam with the idealised bodies of Chola bronze sculptures.
But Gobhai wasn’t always a painter. He worked with one of India’s leading ad agency, J Walter Thompson (JWT), as an illustrator and art director, managing the Air India account, among others. Adman and actor Gerson da Cunha, who also worked at JWT, says, “Mehlli was born to be resented by the likes of me – tall and unfairly good-looking, living with Jacobean furniture and old China porcelain, a great ballroom dancer, and, most important of all in those days, owner of a small car.” In 1963, Gobhai moved to JWT’s world headquarters in New York. Da Cunha says, when they met there in 1964, advertising art was only a diminishing part of his talent. New York’s art world had entranced him. Less than a decade later, Gobhai left advertising and enrolled himself at the Pratt Graphic Center and joined the Art Students League of New York. The city gave him access to the beginnings of pop and conceptual art, two museum shows, and polychrome paintings. In 1985, concerned about his ageing mother, Gobhai returned to India.
The retrospective brings out Gobhai’s unique position in the history of Indian modernism, influenced by circles of abstract expressionism in Europe and America as much as Indian metaphysics. Even the polychromes, Adajania says, were inspired by Jayadeva’s 12th century Sanskrit poem Gita Govinda and American abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning. While Gobhai was drawn deeper into abstraction, the figurative was never far away. Even in the polychromes, the human figure lies buried under layers of abstract forms.
Shireen Gandhy, gallerist at Chemould Prescott Road, which has supported this retrospective, says, despite his achievements, he was something of an outlier. “Given that he was first in advertising, Mehlli started late, had fewer solos. He also missed out on some of the connections with the older Indian modernists in the time that he lived abroad,” says Gandhy. When none of his works sold at his 2011 solo in her gallery, owing to an economic downturn and an audience that wasn’t completely ready for him yet, it left Gobhai feeling rejected.