Walking around Don’t Talk to Me About Colour, the Mehlli Gobhai retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania and managed efficiently by Chemould Prescott Road, I was assailed by the feeling that I was in a time machine and I was being dragged backwards through my own life and into lives I had not led.

I worry about the title and wonder what Mehlli would have thought of it. He hated titles. I look at the curved vitrine containing some of his books and wonder if he would have responded to it in the way I do, seeing the sensuous curves of the gallery’s dome and rotunda echoed in its curvature – this was Adajania’s idea, I am told – or whether he would have preferred to have a rectangular shape that called no attention to itself.

I wonder what he would have thought of his own retrospective.

He had a strong response to the word itself. I had no responses inside my head to the word “retrospective”. For me, it was something that happened in other cities and one could read about them. For decades of my growing-up-in-art years, we had no gallery in which anyone could have a retrospective, and so they went to other cities, viz and namely, New Delhi. Then the project that the sculptor Piloo Pochkhanawala originated and which she handed over to Kekoo Gandhy, the progenitor of Gallery Chemould, came to fruition. After a campaign that Gandhy ran single-handedly and monomaniacally for decades, Bombay got its own NGMA in 1996.

Suddenly life was so much richer.

Untitled, late 1970s. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

I remember my first encounter with the NGMA. India had sent the Festival of India all over the world, an exercise in soft power when the term had no traction. And the British Museum was returning the compliment with a show The Enduring Image, curated by Richard Blurton in 1998, a contribution to the celebrations around our 50 years of independence. I was with a newspaper’s magazine section at the time and so I was doing a curtain-raiser. I walked into the gallery a week before the show opened and had a Tintin moment. I came in exactly at the moment that the head of Amenophis III, (otherwise known as Amenhotep II or Amun-Hatpa or Amun is Satisfied) was being unwrapped. This serene countenance, from the thirteenth century BCE, seemed to anticipate the Buddha’s serenity, and said to me, “You think you had a response to art? Suck this up, young shiftuck.”

I loved the exhibition, I still have the catalogue and the bag and I visited frequently. Later, I went and saw the Picasso show once every week. I have, I think, seen almost every single show except when I was out of town for extended periods.

Head from monumental red granite statue of Amenhotep III. Courtesy British Museum.

That the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya went through a renaissance with the extremely able Sabyasachi Mukherjee in the decade that followed, that the Bhau Daji Lad experienced a similar explosion of art and art experience under Tasneem Mehta, were happy coincidences perhaps, but my cup ran over.

And over the years I noticed that I was falling in love with George Wittet’s building. Today, I know I love the Cowasji Jehangir Hall for not being a hall and not being anything like a museum or a gallery. I love it for the way it seems to work despite itself, eccentrically, with lots of wasted space, huge sweeping corridors that lead to toilets and backstairs.

It is, like many of my loves, veined with dislike. The building was planned when access was not considered terribly important so older people and the physically challenged will never be able to see an entire exhibition and I think this is a pity and something should be done about it soon. But I love the dome and I love to click my fingers and stamp about and create a moment of personal sound art in the middle of all that great art. Someone should put up busts of Piloo Pochkhanawala and Kekoo Gandhy in the building somewhere for the battles they waged to give us this magnificent institution.

This was my second lesson in the happiness architecture can bring you. My first came with the Elphinstone College next door, the first educational institution I fell in love with, the first old South Bombay building I walked into with a feeling of belonging. On the facade of the building was the bust of Sir Cowasji Jehangir whose munificence had brought the College there. It was also a donation of four lakh rupees from the same source that funded the building in which the NGMA is housed, and it was his grandson, the painter Jehangir Sabavala, who would make me think of what the word retrospective would mean.

Jehangir Sabavala. Courtesy Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation.

They were not, it seemed, my kind of people, and yet I was friends with the Sabavalas. I was accustomed to seeing them around, going over, but then for a while, they seemed to vanish from sight. This was because the entire family had plunged into the Sabavala Retrospective that was to be held in Mumbai in 2005 and travel to Delhi in 2006. And the word “retrospective” suddenly entered my life because a friend was having one and another friend, Ranjit Hoskote, was curating it.

It was a great success. Ranjit Hoskote wrote his second book on The Crucible of Painting: The Art of Jehangir Sabavala. The show was greeted with universal acclaim. And I began to see how Jehangir and Shirin worked together as a pair of beautifully matched hunting dogs, both focussed on one single end: the greater good of Sabavala’s career as a painter.

Ranjit Hoskote, Mehlli Gobhai and I found ourselves outside the NGMA. We had all seen the exhibition and Ranjit said to Mehlli: “I think, Gobhai, it is time for you to have a retrospective.”

This was meant as a compliment. Mehlli didn’t think so. Frown lines incised his brow.

“No,” he said. “A retrospective sounds like your work is all behind you.”

Ranjit’s face went blank.

I tried to intervene.

“It doesn’t have to be called a retrospective,” I said.

Mehlli saw that he had done some damage.

“I’ll tell you when I’m ready,” he said.

Ranjit left it at that. On our way home, Ranjit said: “Some artists, who have been our friends for years, get in their own way.”

When Mehlli told Binsey Bharucha, his friend and collector, about this, Binsey warned him, “When you are ready, Ranjit may not have the time.”

Mehlli told me that he replied, “I’ll have to take that chance, won’t I?”

Untitled, not dated. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

I don’t remember exactly when Mehlli fell in the bathroom and began the long slow decline that cruelly took from him the ability to draw, to paint, to create. A series of neurologists followed, a list of recommendations and finally a diagnosis that I spotted almost in passing: peripheral neuropathy. The death of the nerves at the extremities.

Hands are extremities.

Feet are extremities.

The artist I knew always stood and worked. The last show had had constructed canvases – three-dimensional works that confounded the flat plane of the surface of the painting, conflating painting with sculpture. This perhaps was a way out and way back.

I remember the first three-dimensional objects Mehlli painted as the cubes of wood he displayed as part of the group show at Pundole Art Gallery, curated again by Ranjit Hoskote. It was called Hinged by Light (1994). I remember talking to Mehlli about these cubes, which are again on display at the NGMA now. He said they were maquettes and the final work would be larger. He didn’t know how large, he said, but a man should be able to lean against them.

When he died, we found a dozen much smaller cubes of wood in his studio. Perhaps he had rethought the scale and decided that making them smaller would work better. Perhaps he had been defeated by the beauty of these raw wooden objects, the natural grain of the wood on one axis, the artificial austerity of the straight lines and symmetries of a cube on the other. I suspect, he used the constructed canvas as a way out of the plane. But in order for these constructed canvases to work, they had to be large works. I could see that their size was part of their power. They were not meditative objects like so many of the other works were; they were the meditations of Gobhai.

But to make those works, he would have to stand unaided. He could no longer do so. I thought up a chair that would allow him to sta-sit as I called it, a chair that would hold him in a position between sitting and standing. I got a carpenter to make it so that there was a natural support for his back and traction for his legs.

He tried it and gave it his approval and never used it again.

Untitled, 1970s. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Because his hands were taken too. This was the man who drew so fluently that he began to wonder whether his line was not just a little too glib and so switched hands. At the Art Students League classes in New York, the models would hold a pose for a minute or two before changing and during that minute, the students had to get at the essence of the body in space. Mehlli did it, time and again, effortlessly and so he decided that he would use his left hand.

That turned out to be beautifully responsive as well, obeying the commands of his brain, turning a line into the suggestion of mass, slump, the response of the body to gravity, the burden of living, the years of toil in a haunch, the defeat of a pot belly. (These were the bodies Mehlli loved to draw; the dancers, the models, the lean and beautiful young men and women who came through held no interest for him. They were without nuance, those bodies; you could slip off them into the academic appreciation of the muscle coated by sleek skin and lose the human being and the stories of life that older bodies brought with them.)

The right hand went first. It grew claw-like over time.

I should like to record here that Mehlli fought back. He didn’t. He wouldn’t. His friends tried to fight for him. His brother Cavas, on his visits from Boston, would draw up action plans. Shirin Sabavala sent him a yoga teacher, Mizpah, with whom he vibed very well. I brought in a series of physiotherapists. Sheetal Gattani, long-time friend and fellow artist, brought in a play therapist. Mehlli threw up a charming old man demeanour; “doing my best”, he suggested while remaining uncooperative.

The poet Adil Jussawalla, who lives not far from where Mehlli lived, and who had a genuine affection for Mehlli and a powerful response to his work, said, “I like playing with colour sometimes. The red shirt a friend is wearing can make me want to see how I could replicate it, see what it would do against another colour. Why doesn’t he just play with colour?”

“It’s a thought,” said Mehlli.

I read about Matisse, directing those energetic and celebratory paper cut-outs, from his sick bed.

“It’s a thought,” said Mehlli.

Ranjit came over; their friendship was an old one.

“A late style, Gobhai,” he said. “If you start again, you might find a late style.”

“It’s a thought,” said Mehlli.

Life Study, 1986. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Indeed, they were thoughts; just not his. Mehlli had always seen the act of painting as one that was not just serious; serious was Sabavala who once told me that he had set himself “a tough problem”.

Serious was not good enough. If Mehlli had to make art, it was because he had to make art that would hinge on the continuation of the world. When Hoskote threw him a lifeline, inviting him to co-curate a show on abstraction from the works of the Jehangir Nicholson collection that are now at the CSMVS, Mehlli and I spent hours going through his extensive library looking for a quote about the proportions of a Chola bronze figurine, a Nataraja. If the proportions were even a little off, the sculptor had to believe, the universe would not be brought into existence. That was what it meant. He would not mess about with colour. He would not play. He would rather simply not.

But without art, what could he do?

Over a companionable lunch – he was eating a brain cutlet and I, vindaloo rephrased for the Parsi palate, rich but sweet with carrots and potatoes – he looked up from his plate and said calmly, “I don’t know why I am alive.”

I could think of no answer, so I said, “No one does.”

Rage flared at this sophism; then he saw that his honesty had left me sad or he saw that if any of us could answer that question, bang nirvana, bang, the end of the mystery; and bang, also, the reason to continue to live.

He nodded and went back to his lunch.

Around us, we had the constructed canvases from his last show, canvases that had not sold.

Untitled, not dated. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Then a flat in New York was cleared. It was a fourth-floor walk-up in Manhattan and under his brother Cavas’s supervision, with Dinshaw Gobhai doing much of the heavy lifting. In tranches, a treasure trove turned up in Bombay. We unfolded boxes, his helpers and I, and unrolled canvases he had not seen in 50 years.

The colours were vivid, a yearning for home. I thought of my New York moment. Standing at an intersection in Manhattan, waiting for the light to change, I watched a small crowd gather on the other side. They were all wearing black. Men in black, women in black. White people in black, Black people in black. I was wearing a yellow shirt and a pair of jeans. My clothes were shouting, “I’m a tourist, I’m a tourist.”

Colour. Mehlli’s memory of colour. Here it was. Here was the yearning for home he would talk about in retrospect. How he would postpone his ticket back to the USA in order to catch the “great melodrama of the monsoon breaking over the city”. (Ranjit remembers how he would tell his American friends: “It isn’t rain unless it hammers down on the roof and you can’t hear yourself speak.”)

Many of these paintings were also rich with literary colour. Here was the Gita Govinda that Mehlli read in the Sri Lankan artist George Keyt’s translation. He had two copies in his library, both heavily marked.

I never thought to ask whether Mehlli had met Keyt. Kekoo Gandhy names Keyt as one of the catalysts in the artistic revolution that hit Bombay in the 1950s when it seems to have been a cosmopolitan Dreamnagari, a Mayaville of passion and freedom and experiment. Just look at the cinema that was created then with Sahir Ludhianvi working in close tandem with Guru Dutt, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas with Raj Kapoor. No wonder Kaifi Azmi called that version of the city the “Temple of the Indian Arts” (cited in Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends, selected and translated by Yasir Abbasi).

Why didn’t I ask Mehlli? Because it was never the right time to ask him a question. We were supposed to work on a memoir together but it was never the right time to begin. I made long lists of questions, I wrote down whatever I could glean and though we spent thousands of hours together, in Bombay and in Gholvad, it was never the right time.

I sat among the debris of the packaging material looking at these controlled explosions of colour.

“My God, Mehlli,” I said, half-disbelieving, “Are these yours?”

“Yes,” he said contemplatively. “I made them but I don’t remember who I was when I made them.”

“We must have a retrospective,” I said and wanted to bite my tongue. But this Mehlli could not walk, could not stand unaided, was slowly giving up reading and even talking. He was spending most of his time in front of the television, mesmerised by shouting heads.

This Mehlli no longer feared the juju of that word. The worst had happened. He was already at the end and this range of works, the prints and the paintings, the experiments and the failures, they were all remembrances of lost time.

Untitled, May 3, 1974. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

I loved Mehlli’s paintings with the despair of someone who has seen a truth but has not the ability to comprehend it and therefore explain it. I remember odd feelings – the sense of an erotic charge, the horror of death, the fear of something living and lurking, the connection between these colours and those forms, the cross and the crucifix, line, diagonal, the unyieldingness of surface, doors slammed with no pablum about windows opening in other places.

I felt invited and excluded. I felt called, I felt passed over. I yearned to know and stood outside. I watched almost every one of the later paintings emerge. I saw them begin as skeletal lines on bone white. I saw them gain flesh and ignite. I saw them die, I watched as he killed what I loved and then I would see it come to life again.

These new works, no, these old works, these works from the past which had become new again, new for him, new for me, seemed to have jumped out fully-fledged, Athenas from the brow of Jupiter. I was perplexed and almost relieved when the city’s best restorers took them away to work on them.

Other parcels arrived and each was a delight. Some contained many of the water colours with which his children’s books had been illustrated. I had seen these on his shelves and ordered my own. Some of them were out of school libraries but still in decent shape. I had known of this other life, of course.

Mehlli had many other lives. He was at St Xavier’s College at around the same time activist and adman Gerson da Cunha was studying there. They acted in plays together, directed by Ebrahim Alkazi (another story that needs to be told). Then Mehlli joined J Walter Thomson, because his mother played bridge with Cuma Fielden, the wife of Peter Fielden who headed the advertising company, back in the 1950s. He might have got in because his mother, the redoubtable Perin Gobhai, founder-member of the Time & Talents Club, put in a word but Mehlli was not a hire that Fielden would ever regret.

One of Fielden’s innovations was that he created teams of a copywriter and an artist out of the large art department. Mehlli was partnered with Josephine Tuor, also a legend in her time, and together they worked on the Air India campaigns for that other legend, Bobby Kooka.

It so happened that Mehlli sent across some roughs for the campaign. The process was this. A creative director sent across roughs as indications of what things would look like. If the client approved, then the art department made “fair” versions.

Kooka took one look at these drawings and said they were good enough to use. The Art Department need do nothing further. All those lessons with Shiavax Chavda at his studio in Dhobi Talao, those nights spend in the darkness of Shanmukhananda Hall sketching bharata natyam performers, had done their work.

Mehlli was a star. Fielden tried to get Mehlli to be a good company man. His blue-eyed boy would waltz in at 11 am.

‘He told me I should come in at nine to set a good example. But I had set a good example already. I had been at work all night drawing a car and animating it. And on the way home, I saw that the bodies inside a car move differently from the way the car moves and going back to redraw the motion of the human figures.”

(Mehlli also told me he drew directly on to celluloid at JWT. I wrote to several friends I knew who worked there to get them to find these films but to no avail. Mehlli’s work was unsigned, which made it difficult to trace through other advertising archives where the categories were by company and by product.)

Mehlli Gobhai. Courtesy Speaking Tiger.

Mehlli left for England in 1959, according to Gerson da Cunha. There, he lived in Chelsea and attended classes at the Royal College of Art but in the commercial arts section. “Again it was a bourgeois preoccupation with having a trade,” he said. “Though my friends were all in the fine arts section.”

I presume his parents had this preoccupation though he had also told me a story about how his father had reacted when his mother “broke the news” that Mehlli, now living in New York, had quit his job and was going to work full-time on his art.

“Good,” Minocher Gobhai said briefly.

“But he won’t settle down that way,” said Perin Gobhai.

“Perish the thought,” said Gobhai Sr. “An artist should never settle down.”

I found it difficult to imagine a better response from a parent; yet Mehlli saw himself as locked in an Oedipal struggle with his father.

This New York phase was also the time he began to illustrate children’s books. There was a book on Motion which he did in a cartoon style, and another on Electricity; there was also one called A Hindu Boyhood (!) by Sudhir Shetty. I suspect this might have been something of a turning point because as an Indian illustrator he would be branded an “exotic” and get work of this kind.

“I didn’t think one could write of a Hindu boyhood as if all little Hindu boys in India had the same kind of childhood,” Mehlli said. “I told Eunice Holsaert, my agent, that and she replied, ‘Then you must write your own books.’”

And Mehlli did. There was Laxmi; The Water-Buffalo Who Wouldn’t; Usha, the Mouse Maiden, The Blue Jackal and The Legend of the Orange Princess and Ramu and the Kite. These are the ones I know about. Among his papers, we found drawings for a book on Persephone; The Body Book, which is on virtual display at the NGMA now and Tree Book. The last two were ready but Mehlli never did send them off to Eunice.

“Why not?” I asked him.

He shrugged. He was turning the pages of Tree Book and he liked what he saw. It is a lovely book, with all the elements of a tree on double spreads and a final double spread on which they all come together in the symphony that makes a tree.

“No, really, why not?”

“My therapist in New York said I might have a fear of success.”

A fear of success. Was that why Mehlli had refused a retrospective? Sabavala went on painting after his retrospective, having at least one major solo in Ricorso (2008) and watched with delicate delight as his prices soared through the dome of the National Gallery. Mehlli watched it all, a crooked smile on his face; he would put his faith in art. Sabavala understood that it is no accident of linguistics that the word “art is to be found in the word market”. One is embedded in the other.

Courtesy Speaking Tiger.

Another way of looking at the Mehlli Gobhai retrospective.

Mehlli’s moment had not come when Ranjit first suggested the retrospective. It would come as we unpacked the cases that came from New York.

One day, I told him my theory about his use of colour in New York and how it had drained away in India because the world around him was drenched in light, saturated in colour.

“Weak,” he said. “Obvious.”

I was hurt. It probably showed.

“And probably true for those same reasons,” he added.

I could not decide whether he was being kind.

Though I have to say, in matters of art, he was not kind.

Nor was he kind to colour. His palette was exceptionally rich but also terribly austere.

What was his palette? Earth, rust, blood, moss, steel, caput mortuum – “dead head” or “worthless residue”, from alchemy, another source of endless fascination for Gobhai – and beeswax.

“I wanted to use fresh beeswax,” he told me once, settling back with the clear enjoyment of someone who is about to tell a well-tested story. “I had heard that they pasteurised wax and that seemed a pity, like it was being denatured. I wanted my beeswax straight up so I worked my way backwards, from the art shops to the dealers. I wandered all over Bhuleshwar, looking for fresh beeswax until I found some, a ball the size of a human head, glowing softly like a captive moon, still faintly smelling of honey. I loved what it did to the canvas on which I used it. And so did the buyer. Only a few months later, he called up to say the canvas was changing, the colours were changing. I went over and found that it had developed a fungus. The wax was alive and the spores must have found it wonderful food. I had to replace the work.”

Untitled, 2010. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

There was no compromise in what Mehlli painted. He was not going to offer you nostalgia for moments on the quest you never undertook. He was not going to allow you to demonstrate your concern for social justice with big-eyed children. He was not going to yield to the delicate seductions of kitsch or mordant humour. He could write better than most of the painters I know but he never used a word inside a painting in the manner of some younger artists; no, he wouldn’t even allow his viewers the easy way out of a title.

Because that would fix meaning. And Mehlli did not want his painting to come with a meaning attached. He wanted you to come to the painting and find out what it wanted of you. (A book he would often talk about was What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images by WJT Mitchell.) You were to do the work. You were part of what made it a painting. You were implicated. And your universe was going to shift just a little because you were in the presence of that work.

In a way, that was what happened when those works came back from New York. Mehlli confronted Mehlli across time and space. He met himself and he saw that he no longer needed to fear the word “retrospective”. It could happen now.

Untitled, 1970s. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Pheroza Godrej opened the retrospective on March 6. Gerson da Cunha would speak. There would be speeches and Kanchipuram idli afterwards. I thought back to another show, in New York, a group show, Marking Black, curated by Madeleine Burnside and Jeanette Ingberman in 1980 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Mehlli had told me that story himself.

“In my head, I had planned how the opening would be. People would go over to my work and ask in hushed tones who the genius behind these works was. Then someone would point me out, a quiet brooding presence in a corner.

“Of course, I managed to sabotage it myself. I delayed my return again and again until there were only two days to the opening of the show. My mother was quite alarmed. She thought I was cutting it rather fine but I argued that German businessmen flew here and there, arriving on the morning of business meetings where contracts worth millions were to be signed, so I could arrive the day before my show.

“The Air India flight took off on time but somewhere over the Arabian Sea, it developed engine trouble. Nothing significant, they assured us, but we would have to make a stop in Istanbul and get it looked at. We landed all right and then I found we were stuck there for a day. There was nothing I could do, I couldn’t even go out and see the city but I don’t know if I could have enjoyed it, I was so tense. We took off finally and got to New York and I had no time to go home and change. I had to go straight to the museum and as I rushed into the room, where the crowds were milling, I pulled up short and shouted, ‘They’re upside down!’”

Decades later, Madeleine Burnside remembered the moment. “His paintings were in a stack in his apartment and not wired so I took a 50% chance and got it wrong. He forgave me although it made no sense to him – surely the right way up was obvious? Not to me! How we laughed. Of course, they looked great either way but not to him!”

Naturally he forgave her. He was loyal to his friends. “He knew his work was my original inspiration for the show and we built it from there,” Burnside wrote in an email to me.

Untitled, late 1970s. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Standing in the dome, I felt I was in a chapel, a pulsating space of secular sanctity. It was not about Mehlli being dead. We had lost him by degrees over several years before he passed away on September 13 at the age of 87. The iceberg had calved and fractured and melted until it had all but disappeared from view. The depression that crept up on him was not to be assuaged by mood stabilisers. How do you assuage loss of meaning?

Once a journalist had asked him: when did you give yourself to art? He told me about it and his distaste for this formulation “giving yourself to art” was still evident years after the interview. He never gave himself to art. He contended with it, he grappled with it, he wrestled with it as if it were a nocturnal visitation from an angel.

You might say: the dark angel won.

Or you could say Mehlli had left the building.

Up in the chapel I think of Mehlli’s many affiliations. Hundreds of half-conversations come back. The stories. The story about him shouting “Too much colour!” and turning away in horror from the vista of a garden; the story of Victoria the bulldog starting off a police jeep on Dog Hill. I remember other moments too: the smell of the smoke of Gauloises on a chickoowadi night; the planting of a gardenia over the ashes of a dog; the dolphin skulls and the snail shells; the croton leaves and the beauty of cockroaches; the perfidy of coconut-borer wasps and the sudden passionate sympathy for a cache of baby rats found in the bedding. I think of his startling generosity and his frequent quoting of his teacher Knox Martin’s dictum, “The bartender is never drunk”; his response to my writing and his extraordinary ability to show love without ever using the word.

And I think:

That was enough.

That was a feast.

Mehlli Gobhai and Jerry Pinto. Credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

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Mehlli Gobhai (1931-2018): An artist who approached the work of painting like a campaign