Mehlli Gobhai, Untitled, ca. 1970s, mixed media on canvas, 40 × 48".

Mehlli Gobhai, Untitled, ca. 1970s, mixed media on canvas, 40 × 48".

Mehlli Gobhai

In the first works in Mehlli Gobhai’s exhibition “Epiphanies,” all of them untitled and dating to the 1970s, vibrant tones such as cobalt blue, mint green, scarlet red, and bright yellow constellated on dynamic abstract canvases. On closer inspection, human figures and objects reduced to geometric forms and lines emerged from the play of colors: Lord Krishna played the flute in one, while a female figure pleasured herself in another, dated 1974, and we made out a box lying flung open in a third. These rarely seen chromatic paintings—which Gobhai made when he was dividing his time between New York and Mandi, India—form a stunning introduction to more than seventy years of the artist’s work.

Edited to suit the limited space of the gallery, “Epiphanies” was an extract of the artist’s posthumous retrospective, “Don’t Ask Me About Colour,” which opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, in March 2020. Sadly, with the onset of Covid lockdowns, the exhibition had to close within ten days of its opening. In this condensed version, with some ninety-five works, the retrospective’s curators, Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote, concentrated on “breakthrough” moments. The hanging mostly followed a linear chronology, but it also highlighted connections among the diverse experiments of various phases. After the chromatic pieces of the early and mid-1970s, Gobhai (1931–2018) moved toward a somber palette of black, brown, and white that he continued to employ well into the following decade. Where the figure had earlier been hidden, in these works it is absent entirely. Layers of oil and acrylic, dry pastels, and ink along with aluminum powder filled the picture plane. Sharp, precise lines stretched and converged in circuit-like compositions often hewing to the golden ratio. Presented adjacent to these paintings were small collages that functioned as sketches for these energy diagrams.

With restlessness and courage, Gobhai experimented with line and form, both conceptually and materially. In the 1990s, he began playing with density and volume to extend two-dimensional surfaces into sculptural objects. For example, in some untitled works from that decade, fragile handmade papers including Nepali, Kalamkhush, and Jaipuri Kagzi were stapled together, only to be “brutalized” by the artist, who cut, folded, crushed, bleached, soaked, stained, and coated the material. The surface matured into a temporal document and acquired an artifactual character. Adjacent to these were displayed what Gobhai referred to as “constructed canvases”: supports that are mounted one over another or stitched together to create a landscape of depths and elevations. These three-dimensional constructions derived from the two-dimensional paper surfaces and experiments of the ’90s, as well as from a sculptural installation—made during the same decade—of three cubes placed on the gallery floor. Each cube, a six-sided painting, hosted lines, incisions, and folds similar to those on the constructed canvases.

Gobhai played many parts and lived many lives. Besides being a queer man and an artist, he was an advertising professional, a writer and illustrator of children’s books, a collector, a music connoisseur, and a theater actor. Primarily known as an abstract painter, he consistently sketched nude figures and bodies in motion, filling notebooks. Placed at the far end of the gallery in natural light spilling from a large window was a delicate drawing of one of the artist’s most cherished studio objects, a bleached dolphin’s skull he’d found on the beach. Mortality and the transformation of objects by nature over time continued to shape Gobhai’s understanding of life. Here is where he perhaps learned to dwell on the structure beyond visible figurations and to pare things down to their eventual skeletal forms.