Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania create a visual ode for friend Mehlli Gobhai in his retrospective.
Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania have curated a retrospective of artist Mehlli Gobhai, who passed away in 2018, titled Don't Ask Me About Colour, which opens at the NGMA this week. Pic/ Ashish Raje
"The idea for this popped up years ago in December 2005," says cultural theorist, curator and poet Ranjit Hoskote, who, along with wife, cultural theorist and curator, Nancy Adajania, has curated the recent retrospective on Mehlli Gobhai—one of India's most distinguished and pathbreaking abstractionists. "It was a cold winter night in Gholvad, where we were bringing in the new year with Mehlli, as we had for the past 12 years, and he wasn't able to sleep. So, we gathered around the dining table, and both Ranjit and I proposed two exhibitions. One was a retrospective, a monographic show, which Ranjit thought was due a long time ago; and I proposed a show called Excluded Contents, where one would experience an expanded portrait of Mehlli's practice; his work in advertising, his illustrated children's books and his personal collection of artefacts, such as the mukhi dibba from Bengal, Chola stone sculpture and drawings from the Rajput ateliers," adds Adajania.
Gobhai, however, felt retrospectives should be posthumous—"He felt a sense of mortality associated with it. He had very mixed feelings about it…in a way we're honouring his wishes by holding this retrospective posthumously," thinks Hoskote. Comprising nearly 200 works of his art spanning over seven decades, this retrospective—titled Don't Ask Me About Colour—includes a range of art from his earliest drawings as a teenager in the 1940s and children's books commissioned to him during his time in advertising in J Walter Thompson in New York to the journals he amassed over time chronicling his travels and a film script written by him set in Konark and Varanasi.
All the work that he created in New York, which was stowed away in his apartment on Lexington Avenue and never seen before by anyone, has been brought back. "These include a series of still lives, where one sees psychic contents erupting into semi abstract works," reveals Adajania. Hoskote adds, "Mehlli was a reluctant artist in one sense—he was supremely committed to his art, but didn't feel the need to pursue a career in a systematic way. It's also the main reason why one of our most distinctive abstractionists has not received the enormous critical and global acclaim he deserves. On the rare occasions he's referred to, it's in the reductive way of being called the Indian Rothko—that's absurd. He had more in common with Ad Reinhardt."
An untitled mixed media on canvas, circa 1970, from Gobhai’s early private works in New York, which incorporates the use of bright colours—a departure from his more renowned abstract works. Pic courtesy/ Chemould Prescott Road
"And the title of this retrospective is a play on words for something Reinhardt wrote. Mehlli always said he hated colour, and wanted to submerge it and brutalise the canvas. But, the fact is that the initial layers of his paintings were always pinks and blues, and then he would build over and the shadows would gather, and he'd layer them over and over again till it he reached the finished patina. There was a sense of austerity in his art, a spiritual experience. He always saw colour as a seduction, and felt a lot of painters got carried away with colour," explains Hoskote, with Adajania adding, "But that's the side of Gobhai that we see in his publicly known works with sepia and burnt sienna tones, but in his journals or children's books, you'll find a chromatic brilliance — that's what will initially shock the viewer."
Adajania further elaborates, "He had a fascinating eye for detail. On the one hand the exhibition title seems very true to his work—you expect his paintings to be very dark and penumbral, but on the other hand, people will enter the show and first see these polychromatic early works from New York. We want the viewers to be perplexed. The title is a statement of rejection, but what you'll actually see will leave you immersed in colour." "Mehlli's was an art of refusal. He renounced figures and colour, but both are the base of his abstraction," adds Hoskote.
Shireen Gandhy, director of Chemould Prescott Road, which represents his work, ponders, "Even as we're saying he didn't get the honour and acclaim he deserved, he had a marvellous constitution of collectors, who were very dedicated to and loved his work; and this retrospective also represents the love of a collector for an artist's work."
Gobhai at his studio apartment in Cuffe Parade in 2015. Pic courtesy/ Sooni Taraporevala
Ranjit and Nancy look back and ponder Gobhai's thoughts on the show. "He tended to have a profound sense of control in the circumstances in which his work was shown; how to light his work. There are so many layers and tones when you look at his work—some works are impossible to light; they're so dark with so many under layers submerged, it's challenging to figure out a way to add the right light around it. A lot of his collectors would panic saying, 'Mehlli is going to be very upset with how I've hung his painting!'" recalls Hoskote, with Adajania joking, "He'd often say, 'I'm sorry; you can't hang my painting over there like that!'…often taking back a painting if he wasn't happy. He once wanted to rework a painting, took it back, spent years recasting it, and the collector never saw it again!"
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