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Artist Mehlli Gobhai passes away

The 87-year-old veteran artist had been ailing for a while

The Mumbai-based artist, Mehlli Gobhai has died at the age of 87 in a city hospital this morning. The artist was said to be ailing for a while and had been hospitalised for a month.

Poet, curator and cultural critic Ranjit Hoskote’s tweet — an endearing image of artists Jehangir Sabavala and Mr. Gobhai along with him – recalled a friendship of three decades and “many years of conversation, travel and meetings”.

Article by Gauri Vij | The Hindu

MehlliGobhai-KesavanMr. Hoskote said to The Hindu, “He was one of the last great original characters [in the art world]. Absolutely eccentric and with a marvellous experience that crossed three continents in the most interesting decades in the 20th century. He landed in New York city in the most interesting decades and was really a witness to all the incredible moments in art history. He was easily our finest abstractionist. He really crafted his own amazing abstractionism idiom and that was literally special. Had he played his cards better in terms internationally he would have been in a different league. He’s in the same league of [Mark] Rothko and [Barnett] Newman.”

Auction house, Saffron Art’s website describes Mr Gobhai as, “a classical abstractionist with traditional artistic leanings”. Born in 1931, Mr. Gobhai graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He later studied at the Royal College of Art, London and then Pratt Graphic Centre and the Art Students League, New York. He lived and worked in New York for over 20 years, returning to the city of his birth in the late 1980s.

Mr. Hoskote said that, “Nancy [Adajania] and I are currently working with memories of his work for a retrospective of his work, slated to go on display in March 2019. This will be a tribute to the great purity of [Mehlli’s] abstraction. He was such a kaleidoscopic character.”

Below is an article on Mehli from 2002.

Diagrams of energy

An art such as Mehlli Gobhai’s is a sacramental practice, a gesture that connects the secular world to the sacred; the work, therefore, occupies a space midway between easel and altar, writes RANJIT HOSKOTE.

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Link with the past… The paintings of Mehlli Gobhai now on show in Mumbai.

MEHLLI GOBHAI’S recent paintings stand like dark, shrouded angels in his studio; they glow slowly to life as the light touches them, an effect that has been replicated through meticulously calibrated lighting at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, where these works are currently on show. At first sight, these seven paintings appear to mark an unbroken continuity with Gobhai’s preoccupations over the past decade. They record the dialogue of spare line and burnished field: the gradual luminosity emerges from beneath the sombre colours layered in strata of roughened and smoothed textures; the painting aspires to the condition of leather or parchment sanctified by years of ritual.

Gobhai, who was born in Mumbai in 1931, took a degree from St. Xavier’s College there; he went on to train as an artist at the Royal College of Art, London, and the Pratt Graphic Centre and the Art Students League, New York. He lived and worked in New York for two decades before choosing to return to Mumbai in the late 1980s. It is significant to an understanding of his work that he came of age, as an artist, in the United States rather than in Europe, which was the favoured destination for the young Indian artists of his generation. Many of his confreres arrived in Paris or London, only to find that the flight had left without them (actually, they didn’t find this out until much later, but New York had already supplanted these centres as the capital of the international art world). But Gobhai, like the intrepid Mohan Samant and Natvar Bhavsar, caught up with the flight on the other side of the Atlantic.

The early 1960s in New York were a time and place of lively contradictions. The refined high modernism of such Abstract Expressionists as Rothko, Newman and Clyfford Still was at its zenith. But the reaction against it was already under way, in the form of “postmodernist” idioms emphasising conceptual strategy, popular imagery, playfulness, identity politics, naked autobiography and self-dramatising performance. As a post-colonial subject in the pre-eminent global metropolis of the period, Gobhai found himself faced with a variety of artistic choices; but pure painting was the idiom that the best Indian artists aspired to then, and the young artist took up his position on the painterly side of the divide.

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Even today, four decades later, Gobhai makes no apology for painting in series, attending to an image until he has drawn out its resonances to the fullest. Far from denoting the exhaustion of a theme by repetition, such a serialism connotes that system of correspondences and mutations, which unifies an artist’s work in time, carrying it forward through acts of intensification, affirmation and renewal. It is through serial encounter with his material that the artist re-visits a theme that has exercised him, not only exploring it within the span of a current suite of paintings, but also returning to paintings executed in the past, to retrieve and re-direct their impulses.

Gobhai’s works address a specific formal problem: the split between surface and structure that is a defining characteristic of much modern painting. After the pictorial revolutions of Cubism and abstractionism, it was no longer possible to pretend that surface and structure could unproblematically be melded in the production of a representational picture space. It seemed that the painter would have to choose between rival mandates: the sensuous immediacy of surface or the austere linearity of structure. But the problem would not admit of so dualistic a solution; the greater and more stimulating challenge is to reconcile the two principles after the critique of the representational.

Gobhai proposes a resolution by establishing a dynamic relationship between surface and structure. The surface is associated, in his oeuvre, with a tactile eroticism: here, he dwells on the attractions of organic form and metallurgic physicality, charging his paintings with the feel of stone and fruit-rind, earth and leather, river-veined rock and metal sheet. Structure marks the other pole of Gobhai’s personality: here, he refines the bodily human presence to the briefest but starkest notation, that of the axis, which is also the pivot around which the universe turns; the relationship of the body to the cosmos is indicated through an elegant economy of means. Surface and structure are tuned finely to each other: Gobhai’s is an art of deep coloristic and textural saturation held in counterpoint by geometric precision.

The colours and textures may bear subliminal associations, but the sharp linearity and the deliberate saturation remind us that Gobhai registers the primacy of the human imprint of order over the contingencies of nature and chance. These paintings function as energy diagrams, holding a set of forces together through linear symmetries, chromatic assonances, subtle allusions to the genres vestigially latent within Gobhai’s abstractionist idiom, such as the figure and the landscape.

Significantly, the artist often draws metaphors from geomancy and cosmology to approach his work; it is clear that he continues to regard the painting as a kshetra, a field of action, a ritual theatre of forces that becomes a model of the universe. An art such as Gobhai’s is a sacramental practice, a gesture that connects the secular world to the sacred; the art-work, correspondingly, occupies a space midway between easel and altar.

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Let us turn, now, to the process by which Gobhai achieves these paintings. These magisterial works, powered by archetypal allusions — the clay tablets of the law; steles for fallen heroes; edicts graven in stone; scriptures written on parchment or leather — are painted on a base of handmade kalamkhush paper. The deckle edge of the kalamkhush is left intact: untrimmed, irregular. Work begins when the stiff, thick paper is stapled down to a hard board that serves Gobhai as an easel; he then builds up the painting in layers of graphite and zinc powder, pastel and acrylic, washing in the paint with a brush and rubbing the pigment and powders into the paper with his fingers and a rag.

Gobhai insists on the unnameability of the colours produced through this intensely satisfying activity of “staining and polishing”, and the varying gradations of rust, olive, verdigris, grey and black in his paintings change hue with changes of light and viewing angle, to reveal hidden tones (he is notably ambivalent towards colour, relishing it but damping it down before it can exercise its full enchantment). As the painting emerges from the alternate scumbling and glazing of the surface, Gobhai marks in his definitive lines, drawing and sometimes incising them with a burnishing tool.

While Gobhai enjoys an intimate, full-bodied relationship with his material, he does not believe that the process is more important than its product; complex and intricate as it is, the process is finally subsumed and attains its fulfillment within the resolved image. Which is not to say that the process does not secrete any evidence of itself in the product: its impress and character are evident in an unmistakeable sense of embodiment, in the incision of line and the staple scars, the varying degrees of patina and the ragged edge left close to the preliminary stage of colouring and less worked over than the main surface. As a result, these art-works gain a palpability and even a manifest corporeality, becoming emphatic presences.

In the studio, before being set in frames, they possess a free-hanging, sculptural quality. And while Gobhai’s concern with the worked-over surface keeps him wedded to the two-dimensional space of the painting, his preoccupation with structure ought to urge him in the direction of the four-dimensional realm of the sculpture-installation, and the re- positioning of his classicism in a new context. In this sense, I would speculate that these new works are transitional or indexical forms.

Pointing beyond the space of painting as they do, I would suggest that they signify the threshold of a new project, a throwing forward of energy into engagement with untested situations. Mehlli Gobhai has not yet permitted himself to articulate these possibilities, but his recent works indicate that he has begun, if I may adapt Jiro Yoshihara’s vivid and memorable phrase from the Gutai Manifesto (1956), “to hear the tremendous scream of the material”.

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