Mehlli Gob­hai, the lit­tle-known ge­nius

A lead­ing ab­strac­tion­ist, an easy-go­ing man and a much revered name in art cir­cles, passes away at 87


MEHLLI Gob­hai de­served to be known bet­ter by the com­mon man. One of In­dia’s great­est ab­strac­tion­ists, Gob­hai’s can­vases showed lit­tle but spoke a lot. Shireen Gandhy, whose Gallery Che­mould pre­sented his works in five solo ex­hi­bi­tions and two group ex­hi­bi­tions, says, “It would take him a long time to cre­ate a body of work. His ab­strac­tion was so laboured. In a year or a year-and-a-half, he would make eight solid works. We started show­ing him in the ’90s, and sub­se­quently, we had about six or seven ex­hi­bi­tions. Each one pro­gres­sively dif­fer­ent, and yet, the ethos was very re­strained, dark, brood­ing. One ex­hi­bi­tion was can­vases, an­other was split pa­per. The sur­faces he worked on also spoke back to him.”

Be­gan as an art di­rec­tor

Gob­hai be­gan his ca­reer as an art di­rec­tor and il­lus­tra­tor at J Wal­ter Thomp­son, and in 1957, two of his en­tries for Air In­dia were in­cluded in the pres­ti­gious Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Arts Guild. He sub­se­quently stud­ied at the Royal Col­lege of Art, Lon­don, and then the Pratt Graphic Cen­tre in New York, where he chose to live for nearly two decades. That is part of the rea­son why only the art fraternity in In­dia knew about him, un­til he moved back to his city in the 1980s. Gandhy says, “One of the things I got to un­der­stand about him was that artists re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated him. When an artist ap­pre­ci­ates you, you are what you call an artist’s artist. Good artists ap­pre­ci­ated him. That, of course, led me to his stu­dio. Soon af­ter, we be­gan to dis­cuss [his ex­hi­bi­tions].”

A bach­e­lor, Gob­hai’s Cuffe Pa­rade house, along with his chikoo farm in Gholvad, soon be­came a sa­lon of sorts. He re­con­nected with old friends: artists Je­hangir Sabavala and Meera De­v­i­dayal, ar­chi­tect Charles Cor­rea, and ad­man Sylvester DaCunha, and made some new ones: Gandhy, au­thor Jerry Pinto and art critic Ran­jit Hoskote. His stu­dio in Mum­bai would be scat­tered with fam­ily pho­to­graphs, his draw­ings, books and pa­pers, his paints, his brushes and two dol­phin head skele­tons. Even though his house was filled with beau­ti­ful ob­jects, “he wouldn’t dis­play them in an os­ten­ta­tious way. It was just that he was sur­rounded by the things he loved,” re­calls Kamini Sawh­ney, cu­ra­tor at the Je­hangir Ni­chol­son Art Foun­da­tion (JNAF), who knew him from an ad­vi­sory coun­cil at JNAF.

Not a pushy per­son

It can be said that his per­son­al­ity didn’t match his work. “As a per­son, he was ex­tremely charm­ing, very good-look­ing, al­ways lo­qua­cious, and won­der­ful com­pany,” says Gandhy. “He was a very, very af­fa­ble hu­man be­ing; easy to get along with and gen­tle. But there was cer­tainly a dark side with which he would ap­proach the can­vas as an artist. There were very weird, ab­stract, dark, burnt um­bres, dark browns, very melan­cholic.”

Sawh­ney, on the JNAF web­site, de­scribes his paint­ings as ones that “feel and look like ei­ther an aged scrap of leather, an old parch­ment, a metal sheet or the rind of a fruit.” When we ask Sawh­ney why he wasn’t bet­ter known, es­pe­cially to Mum­bai au­di­ences, she says, “Mehlli was not a pushy kind of per­son. He didn’t play his cards the way any­one else [with his tal­ent] would have. His work was very spare and min­i­mal­is­tic, and that was the way he was when talk­ing about his work as well. He just wasn’t very good at sell­ing his work. Ran­jit [Hoskote] used to say that he’s one of the finest, if not the finest, ab­strac­tion­ists this coun­try has. A lot of peo­ple are not nec­es­sar­ily recog­nised dur­ing their life­time. They let their work speak for them­selves.”

In March next year, Gandhy, along with cu­ra­tors Nancy Ada­ja­nia and Hoskote, will present a ret­ro­spec­tive of his works at the NGMA, Mum­bai. It would be a good time to go and lis­ten to what Gob­hai had to say.


Mehlli Gob­hai. (right) An Un­ti­tled work.

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