It's hard to say good-bye to Mehlli Gobhai, one of the best abstractionists in India, and one of the most gracious people I've known.
Mehlli, who died in Mumbai on Thursday at the age of 87, was a member of the Advisory Board of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghrahalaya in Mumbai.
Together with Ranjit Hoskote he co-curated one of my first projects in the gallery, Nothing is Absolute: A Journey through Abstraction, in 2013. This meant many evenings at Mehlli's house, drinking coffee and transferring to his library, from Juan Eduardo Cirlot & # 39; s A symbols dictionary for Nigel Pennick's The ancient science of geomancy.
While structure and form played a central role in his art practice, it was in making this show that I saw how Catholic his influences were. They varied from the theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to the geometries of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic architecture. His own abstractionist works were reduced – the largest in the Foundation's collection (a self-titled work done in the year 2000) resembles the surface of a parchment that is submerged in its distinctive brown tones that are almost black.
Sharp lines cut across the painting, rid the human body of bends and reduce it to the bare essence. This style largely defined his later practice. Mehlli started out as a graphic artist. No catalog escapes his message. Detail was important; design, line and symmetry were sacred. He illustrated some of the best children's books such as Laxmi the bull who did not want that and the legend of the orange princess.
As a young artist in the 1950s, Mehlli illustrated the covers of India's first jazz magazine, Blue Rhythm, which was published in Bombay. Journalist Naresh Fernandes & # 39; blog, Taj Mahal Foxtrot, provides a lively description of his covers.
After spending nearly 20 years in New York, Mehlli returned to India in the 1980s. "Most of the artists I admired left the city and worked elsewhere and my travels to India became more and more important to me." I was tired and bored by the artificial stimulation of the art scene in New York. 39;, as we used to say to New Yorkers, and if someone was on the way to abstraction in my own work, I rediscovered the fertile soil that was here in India, "he wrote in his essay to the catalog of the 2013 exhibition.
Mehlli made great art, he also loved great art. His house was full of pieces that moved him.
Some were antiques, others were craft objects that reminded him of the hidden order in nature. He was also a connoisseur of good food. We have often debated the merits of a confectioner over another and exchanged recipes. His dog Ari was one of the greatest loves of his life and his death left Mehlli desolate.
A series of small strokes made Mehlli incapable of work in his last years. The last time I met him was a few months ago.
We sat at his home and shared his favorite blueberry cheesecake from Theobroma.
There was an unfinished work on the wall and it brought me back to the evening before the opening of Nothing
"It's terrible!" He had told me then. "All these wonderful evenings are coming to an end … evenings of community, of conversation, of cooperation." Why not Mehlli, "I said," I will visit you often. "A promise I wish I had fulfilled more often.
Published for the first time: Sep 14, 2018 07:30 IST