We were sitting in a Charles Correa-designed house, looking out at five acres of “cultivated wilderness” and talking about death and painting.

“Perhaps that’s why we create,” Mehlli said. “Because death is certain. And because we can’t believe it will happen to us, we react as children might. We try and throw something at the bogeyman, to scare him away. That something is art.”

Mehlli Gobhai, who died on Thursday morning at 87, was one of my closest friends. He was the man who taught me to eat cheese that smelled different and lamented my lack of a drinking habit. He taught me to look at modern art, he taught me how to respect the sacred geometry of a Chola bronze. He taught me the correct way to tie my shoelaces and he taught me to shake out my shoes before I put them on in the country lest a scorpion had sought the acrid shelter of my footwear for the night.

He was one of the greatest of abstract expressionist painters we had, no, one of the greatest painters we had and he took his work seriously. So seriously in fact that he often waited for a painting to begin happening for months. And then there would be the first approach, the black thread taken from his mother’s sewing box. This would be pinned carefully to the canvas and then he would sit back and light a Gaulois and consider what had happened to space and time and him and us by this simple intervention. When it seemed as if this might be able to bear the burden of what he wanted to magic into being, he would begin the work of painting.

But it wasn’t work; it was a campaign. Mehlli Gobhai approached his canvas with no feelings of certainty about what he wanted, with no pretense that it was a willing ally in the act of creation. He would often speak of what he was doing in terms that were spiked with violence. “I must brutalise that section,” he would say. “I must rough that up a bit.”

The early years

Mehlli Gobhai was born into an India that was still under British rule and went to Bombay’s Saint Xavier’s High School and Saint Xavier’s College. He even started a degree in law before he moved on to join J Walter Thomson to work in the creative department. There, he drew some magnificent roughs for the Air India campaigns being managed by the legendary Bobby Kooka. Kooka looked at the roughs and declared they didn’t need any refining.

He moved for a while to England where he lived and studied in London before moving to New York, a city that suited him perfectly. It was rich, it was vibrant with energy. But there was also his home by the Arabian Sea, Bombay, with its dramaturgy of monsoon cloud and rain greys; and the foothills of the Himalayas where creeks ran muddy brown and a water snake lurked in the pond where he drew his water. There he earned his money by working on a series of children’s books that Speaking tiger will bring out soon translated in a variety of languages: Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu.

Finally, he returned home and it was when he was having his first show at Gallery 7 in 1985 that I met him. He kept encouraging me to buy the papier mache creations that Pushpamala N had produced. We next met in 1994 when Ranjit Hoskote curated “Hinged by Light” for Pundole Art Gallery. I was a mathematics tutor then and worked in the area around his home on Carmichael Road. I would often drop in for coffee and cheese and endless conversations about everything from whether naïve art could really be naïve to the mathematics of Carnatic music. In the background, a painting would be burning quietly, its colours rich and strange and interior…can a colour be interior? On a canvas? You have to look at a Mehlli Gobhai work to see how that can happen.

He began to come to the Poetry Circle, enjoying working with words and having them critiqued. I think now of how Tagore said that art was a release because there were no expectations. But Mehlli took his writing seriously. Whether it was an ode to Bombay or a catalogue essay for his good friend the artist Sheetal Gattani, he worked out what he wanted to say and then sat down to work on it.

Untitled, 2007. Mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: Gallery Chemould

A big thing

A few years ago, a stroke knocked him over. When I went to see him, I asked: “How does the other guy look?”

“Don’t make a big thing out of it,” he snarled. Making a big thing out of anything, even if it was a big thing like a stroke, was a cardinal sin in the Gobhai theology. But a few days later when he began to slur some words, we went to see a doctor. We were sent to a neurologist. Peripheral neuropathy, one of them said. It was a cruel thing this disease. It took his hands from him and then his feet. It took his work from him. He was the man who had once wondered if his skill at life drawing was making his line glib and so he had shifted to his left hand and found that drawing came just as easily. Now he could not work with precision. And if he could not do exactly what he wanted to do, if he could not control everything, everything, he was not going to do anything.

He stopped working.

And then he began to withdraw. Just a little. The long phone calls became shorter and then telegrammatic. His wide circle of friends, from postmasters upcountry to aspiring artists, from kindergarten school teachers to egg ladies, shrank and shrank until it was a man in front of a television set with the images playing on and on, the hysteria of news, the accretion of meaningless detail. I tried to slow things down. Sheetal Gattani tried. His brother Cavas, a midwife of ideas in the United States and now felled by a similar stroke, tried. His nephew Dinshaw tried. But without the ability to lob another work of art in the face of time, Mehlli was having none of it.

Going away

Ten days ago, he began to experience respiratory distress. He was admitted to hospital. He had been there before and come back in a day or two. This time he would not return.

Ranjit Hoskote, noted art critic and cultural theorist, said: “Had Mehlli’s career trajectory been managed differently, or had he belonged to a later generation that benefited from globalisation, he would undoubtedly have been acknowledged as a key figure in the history of global abstraction. His art was not derivative of Western exemplars. Rather, it stood its ground beside Rothko, Newman and the other masters of Abstract Expressionism. In the specific context of Indian abstraction, also, Mehlli was unique. He made no concessions to the phantoms of landscape, or to inherited symbolism, or to the evocation of retinal reality, to which some of his confreres in Indian abstraction remained wedded. He was proud to describe his art as a ‘non-objective’ art. And in the late phase of his work, he experimented boldly with blurring the line between painting and sculpture, to produce results that were neither and yet more expansive than both. I used to speak of these as ‘image-objects’. They remain among his most compelling work. While many (and careless) observers believed that his work remained more or less similar across the decades, the reverse is true.”

Hoskote explained: “Any consideration of his oeuvre demonstrates the clear shifts from one phase to the next, the emphasis on the incised line yielding to a devotion to the saturation of colour as palimpsest, this yielding in turn to a sculptural interest in edge and mass. Too many in the art world saw him as a genial eccentric. Too few saw the driven, inspired nature of his artistic explorations.”