Updated: Feb 28, 2022
Since the pandemic hit India in March 2020, art galleries have been open for a very limited time. Since June 2021, the market started opening up and we saw various contemporary galleries hosting amazing art shows. Gallery Chemould Prescott was not an exception either. The gallery opened its doors to art lovers in Mumbai with the Mehlli Gobhai : Epiphanies, co-curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania. With the opening night on July 27th 2021, the show was an instant hit with a full house. The show presents a series of memorable breakthrough moments in the nearly 70-year-long career of Mehlli Gobhai (1931-2018), one of India’s greatest abstractionist painters.
‘Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies’ is an edited extract of ‘Don’t Ask Me about Colour’, the largescale
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, snatching away the chance for MG fans and art lovers to immerse themselves in Gobhai’s art, and especially discover his unseen New York phase, which was exhibited publicly for the first time. To viewers who missed the retrospective, ‘Epiphanies’ offered an opportunity to engross with Gobhai’s extraordinary and magisterial oeuvre.
The curator, Ranjit Hoskote remarks, "We were, naturally, very disappointed when the retrospective (Don't Ask Me About Colour) was cut short by the lockdown. It had involved more than three years of work and was a large-scale exhibition with more than 250 objects. Nancy, Shireen and I were committed to revisiting the show, and presenting it again, in a new avatar. Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies is an edit, in which we focus on the breakthrough moments in Mehlli’s practice. Through the succession of such moments, we help viewers to engage fully with Mehlli’s radiant achievement as an artist.
In Epiphanies, we were able to edit down the show and yet display Mehlli’s paintings and drawings, his expanded practice – including his children’s books and political posters – and his collection of stone and metal artefacts."
‘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 with.
Gobhai’s experiments with dry pastel and aluminium powder were on view, along with 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, to demonstrate his dual and mutually replenishing commitments to abstraction and the human presence. One can also witness his transition as an artist, understanding more about his thought process and experiments in art.
Nancy Adajania reminisces, "Both Don’t Ask Me about Colour and Epiphanies are, above all, tributes to our friendship with Mehlli, which began in 1990 and continued until his passing in 2018. Our experience of preparing and designing both exhibitions has been a moving one. We have revisited times spent with him – at his home and studio on Carmichael Road, then at Pallonji Mansions, the annual New Year holidays we spent with him for many years, at his rural retreat in Gholvad.
Ranjit and I were blessed to have been Mehlli’s friends. During studio visits, on social occasions, during the New Year holidays that we spent with him in Gholvad for many years, we were privileged to enjoy his deep friendship, warmth and generosity of spirit. He reached out to the world in a 360-degree spirit of great curiosity and empathy. No detail escaped him. He enjoyed textiles, everyday metal objects, the natural world, animals, Hindustani classical music, conversations with a range of people across social milieux. He shied away from the limelight but his presence could light up a room and all its conversations."
The show kept its promise to bring some unseen works of MG that will break through the Indian art market, paving for other artists who work in diverse mediums to experiment and innovate.
Recounting her friendship with Mehlli, Shiren Gandhy, Director at Chemould and her experience of putting together Epiphanies with Ranjit and Nancy; she says, "Installing a real exhibition in the gallery felt incredible, satisfying - and the double whammy was having our curators Ranjit and Nancy building up a narrative once again - from when we watched them do it at the NGMA with the same artist.
Mehlli would have people for lunch, be invited reciprocally, and a wonderful conversationalist who took stories out of his pocket.... Sometimes he would repeat the same old and I would be..."oh Mehls not that one again.!" and he would crack up at my eye roll! He held the stories that were told to him close and pop them at the appropriate time - so had this great sense of being a raconteur! He and I shared wonderful moments - talking about painting, people, artists or sometimes in silence looking at his work."