Throwing light on the life and nearly 70-year-long career of Mehlli Gobhai (1931-2018), one of India's greatest abstractionist painters, a new exhibition titled 'Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies', co-curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania has opened in the Mumbai-based gallery Chemould Prescott Road. It is open to view till August 23.
According to the gallery, the exhibition is an edited extract of 'Don't Ask Me about Colour', the large scale retrospective of Gobhai's work that Hoskote and Adajania had co-curated at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, early last year. The retrospective was cut short by the Covid lockdown.
'Epiphanies' draws on the extensive holdings of the late artist's estate. It includes his work in varied media and from the New York and Mumbai phases of his life. On display are Gobhai's paintings, drawings, graphic works, sculptures and notebooks, as well as glimpses of his expanded practice as an author of books for children.
The title of the exhibition refers to the periodic thresholds of discovery and invention that Gobhai crossed, as he refined and deepened his artistic practice. The exhibition includes his percussive and little-known polychrome paintings of the mid-1970s, when he responded both to everyday life and to the Pahari miniatures through the use of high colour: mint green, sunflower yellow, vermilion, and cobalt blue. The show traces his passage, from the late 1970s across the 1980s, towards the dark, brooding palette of black, grey and umber which he is better associated.
Gobhai's experiments with dry pastel and aluminium powder will be on view, as will the 'constructed canvases' that he innovated, blurring the line between painted surface and sculptural contour. The artist's remarkable life studies and figurative drawings will also be shown, as also his New York phase.
Gobhai studied at St. Xavier's College, Bombay, the Royal College of Art, London and the Pratt Graphic Centre and the Art Students League, New York. He was part of Marking Black at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York in 1980 and has continued to show in important group exhibitions at various galleries in India.
"Mehlli's process of painting unfolded over time, it was multi-layered and involved a series of approaches to his material, whether that was acrylic on canvas, or graphite and aluminium powder on paper, or contï¿½ and acrylic on sheets of paper stapled together. Every application of pigment, with brush and palette knife, would be scumbled in with his fingers or a rag, then the surface would be burnished to shadowy velvet with a burnisher, then "brutalised", in his own favourite phrase with further applications of paint. The effect of these operations was slow burn, or electric, or a suffusion of light, or shadows swimming below the surface of light. And through it all, he would use a burin or palette knife to incise a spare energy diagram of lines across the surface," Ranjit Hoskote told IANSlife.
"Mehlli practised various art forms simultaneously. He was painting alongside his work as a graphic artist, and while he was an art director at J. Walter Thompson. Much earlier, he was studying drawing with the artist Shiavax Chavda and accompanying him to dance recitals, where both teacher and student turned out lightning-speed drawings of the dancers. At around the same time, he was studying theatre and training as an actor with the formidable E Alkazi at the Theatre Group. All these engagements with varied dimensions of cultural practice nourished his art," Nancy Adajania told IANSlife.