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A Mehlli Gobhai retrospective: Transcending the pandemic

As the Gallery Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, extends its ongoing exhibit \’Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies\’, curated by Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote, to September 18, 2021, Abir Pothi catches a glimpse of the show delayed by a whole year, as well as how and what is being presented from the path-breaking artist\’s body of work

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The COVID-19 pandemic has indubitably had its own unique, yet common, impact on every sector, including art. Tremors were naturally felt in the art world during successive lockdowns, and it is only now that human society is tentatively seeking a reopening of doors, albeit with trepidation. And then, there are those who are adapting to the new normal in creative and wonderful ways, ensuring that the prevailing crisis does not stifle the voice of beauty in this world.

One example of the latter is Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies — an exhibition curated by noted art critics Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote, featuring the incredible, diverse and fascinating artworks of noted path-breaking abstractionist Mehlli Gobhai. It is showing at the Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, and has now been extended to September 18, 2021. Interestingly, Epiphanies is an edited version of a larger retrospective — \’Don’t Ask Me about Colour\’ — that was cut short by the pandemic in just about 10 days. In March 2020, the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Mumbai was all set to host the large-scale retrospective dedicated to the late Gobhai, who passed away only in 2018 at the age of 87. And at this juncture, the world went into shutdown mode, thanks to COVID-19.

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Adajania and Hoskote, who had worked on the project for three whole years, were left disappointed. But today, just over a year later, there is a sense of rejuvenation once again in the oeuvre. This uplifting emotion is also an apt paean to the vivid art of Gobhai, easily credited as one of India\’s greatest and most distinguished abstract painters and cultural icons.

Over his life (1931-2018) and some 70-year-long career, Gobhai worked with varied media, creating paintings, drawings, graphic works, sculptures, notebooks and even books for children, while working primarily out of New York and then Mumbai. His cultural interests were vast and adaptive, and lay in everything from dance to theatre, music, cinema, and writing delightful children’s books (based on subjects ranging from science to folk tales).

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An evolution of colour and another of surfaces is something that many note in Gobhai’s trajectory. Of note in the former are his art phases that span from the 1970s to the 1980s an explosion of colour to a meld of watercolour, casein, graphite, and then a shift to austere grey, umber and black, to finally luminous darkness. Of the latter, we learn of his innovated ‘constructed canvases’ that “blurred lines between painted surface and sculptural contour”.

Taking all of this into account, Epiphanies has been approached and designed as a museum-level exhibition presented in a gallery, with wall texts for biographical and art-historical contexts accompanying Gobhai’s works.

Selecting carefully from his prodigious repertoire (from the 250-odd works at NGMA to a tightly selected 95 artworks plus some archival materials at Chemould), Epiphanies, cites the gallery, focuses on “key moments of breakthrough in Gobhai’s art”. This includes: “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.”


The show touches upon a brilliant diversity of categories that the artist mastered over the years. There are, of course, some of his earliest, gorgeous polychrome abstract paintings, rendered in watercolours, oils, and mixed-media. “I like colours to be somewhat submerged. I like forms to be somewhat submerged, and to come up for air,” Gobhai had reportedly said. Soon, he switched to a sombre palette of black, white and brown, and became deeply focused on the geometrical lines and structure of what he was creating. There was a fixed mathematical tenor in the works that came about during this time. Of note is also the burnished gleam he managed to bring about to his art works by experimenting with pigments. Next was the turn of dimensions — Gobhai became even more architectural in his practice and drew out his canvas into callouses, crevices and more. One also sees a glimpse into the sketches that he drew all his life.

Ultimately, as Adajania-Hoskote admitted to in a recent interview, this exhibit is seen as \”a persuasive invitation to the universe of Mehlli Gobhai\”, celebrating his eccentricity, immense talent, unmitigated inspiration and astounding legacy.