I can never forget the experience of having come face to face for the first time, nearly 30 years ago, with a painting by Mehlli Gobhai. At its most visceral level, as I stood before this work in his studio, it was an experience of being confronted by a saturated expanse of deep colour: an expanse so intensely worked to a fine tonal pitch that my principal sensation on encountering it was one of shock, soon to be followed by a bracing restfulness. Nor did this expanse merely suck the viewer into a mysterious void without contour, or leave him suspended in the domain of a transfigured sensory awareness. Instead, by reason of having been incised over with subtle map-lines of light, this painted surface delivered a visual and conceptual challenge to the viewing eye.

Did these paintings gather their aura from their subliminal affinity with the ritual diagram, pulsating with energy? Were they maps of a region of consciousness that lay beneath the threshold of everyday perception? By what magical process of creative destruction did they articulate the presence of an image, even though the artist had deliberately broken down the image (and, with it, our expectation of finding an image) in these frames?

Gobhai’s formal strategies, his chromatic preferences and combinations of medium, shifted constantly during the last four decades. He coursed between canvas and paper, and among various kinds of hand-made paper. He extended his practice to sculptural objects, painted wooden blocks arranged in changing constellations. He shuttled from soft greys and complex blacks compounded from Indian red and tinged with green, through a palette of rust, olive and verdigris, to the spectrum of variably graded umber, sienna, blue-black and metallic blue-grey that currently fascinates him. He mixed acrylic and charcoal, aluminium and zinc powder, pastel and graphite in various proportions, grinding and staining them into the surfaces of his paintings, using his fingers, cotton wads, a set of rags, a burnishing tool, and, very occasionally, a brush.

Through all these shifts, Gobhai remained true to one compass point: his devotion to an abstraction conceived of as an art of refusal. This devotion bore rich fruit in the unbroken sequence of paintings, drawings and sculptural objects that Gobhai produced from the 1970s until his physical incapacitation about four years ago. I must clarify that, by an “art of refusal”, I mean here a courageous turning away from the option of declaring a truce with perceived reality, a disciplined rejection of any painterly negotiation with the domain of known, visible and conventionally rendered forms. Gobhai founded his art on the renunciation of the figure, of narrative, and of a broad palette of colour. In this stringent spirit, his paintings offer us no determinate residues of everyday retinal experience from which they might have been, so to speak, abstracted and distilled. We do not find, in them, the vestigial evocations of landscape, departures from calligraphy, or rehearsals of usage-honoured symbolism that characterise the art of many other abstractionists. Indeed, Gobhai’s art kept the more prevalent models of Indian abstraction at a considerable distance.

If refusal formed the enabling negative pole of Gobhai’s artistic practice, its equal and opposite positive pole was that of consecration. This is expressed in the carefully calibrated building-up of varied physical elements and gestures, the elaboration of pictorial space as a field of competing intensities, through which he released the sense of the numinous in his paintings. Many artists structure their paintings around a balance of contending masses; by contrast, Gobhai chose to structure his works around an imbalance among forces held by grace at the edge of precariousness.

Gobhai’s paintings are propelled by a logic of alternative surge and absorption. A surge of primal energy crests in every one of his paintings: a continuous, percussive energy that collides with his picture surface; and which he shapes, with a geometer’s unfailing instinct for measure, into a system of modular forms. Gobhai crafted the ratios of his modularity through the classical device of the Golden Mean as well as, sometimes, the Fibonacci sequence. The forms into which he shaped the surge thus bear magnitude as well as direction. They are held within mutual relationships of attraction and repulsion; they resonate within a system of visual echoes and counterpoints, so involving the viewer in a deep absorption. This explains why, even as the surge remains in constant play in Gobhai’s pictorial space, the absorption ensures that the overall effect is paradoxically one of repose rather than of restlessness.

Untitled, 20007, mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: Gallery Chemould
Untitled, 20007, mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: Gallery Chemould

II.

I would identify four major elements in Gobhai’s work. First, the glowing darkness; second, the palimpsest or sedimentation; third, the axis; and, fourth, as was evident in his last phase of activity (2007-2011), a preoccupation with the vexed, mutable relationship between the image aspect and the object aspect of the sculptural art work.

The glowing darkness is what we meet first, in Gobhai’s paintings: an amplitude that is not an eclipse of illumination, but is, in the poet Heinrich Heine’s phrase, a “lit and lighting night”. It is a field of mystery, generated from sumptuous attentions of colour and texture driven underground by austere and sophisticated gestures of stilling and planing down. I am tempted to gloss Gobhai’s painterly strategy by reference to the Zen tradition of “hiding one’s light”: the further one has advanced on the path towards illumination, so the Zen monks teach, the more carefully must one conceal that attainment. And so, a perfect master may walk around in the guise of an unlettered rustic, radiance disguised in the robe of simplicity.

As with all forms of darkness, the eye becomes attuned to its complexities of concealment, its promises of revelation. We come to recognise it, on closer acquaintance, as a palimpsest or sedimentation. And therefore, second, we see that Gobhai’s paintings always assume the nature of palimpsests, sites of sedimentation. His darkness is layered: dark and light soak alternately into his picture surface; one intensity of colour succeeds another; one massed density crosses another, one medium is worked into the well-laid textures of another. As I have suggested elsewhere, darkness is the prism through which we see the enigma of colour, in his paintings.

Gobhai’s chosen palette, over the years, seemed compounded from shadows, from mud, rust, charcoal, hidden minerals and all that is fugitive from the sun. His surfaces are reminiscent of metal, leather and stone on which the action of time, wind and running water have left their impress: the signs of weathering, attrition, oxidation and the burnish of long use are invoked in his painted surfaces, as though the processes of natural history were being enacted here. And thus, these paintings encrypt in themselves, physically, a variety of temporalities – of making, memory, allusion and recounting – which we must decode and release, as we attend to Gobhai’s practice.

We come now to the third key element in Gobhai’s work: the axis. This is the crucial and decisive gesture that brings Gobhai’s paintings to life, just as (in one of his favourite examples) the painting and “opening” of the eyes brings a Hindu icon to life, in the ritual known as the prana-pratishtha. Since linearity introduces shape, direction and a discernible purpose into a composition, Gobhai’s subtle yet assertive lines act as hinges of light around which the glowing darkness turns: there are hints, here, of the plumb line and the surveyor’s artificial horizon, the channel of ascension and the probe into unknown depths.

From the activation of this axis emerged Gobhai’s “non-image image”. Broken down and reconstituted as a set of residues, the image manifests itself as an affective symbol, a vector of psychic energy that holds transfigurative potential. The axial lines counterpose, to the zone of time and surge, a possibility of stillness and absorption: they transform the field into a kshetra, a cosmogram. Indeed, it enshrines the action of the geometer’s hand: the hand that represents the human will, which resists the ineluctable operation of natural processes, and leaves its intransigent mark on the surface of time. These paintings are tokens of that resisting hand. In receiving them, we become participants in what is, at a profound level, the artist’s ritual performance of centring the creative psyche in relation to a demon-haunted world.

Untitled, 2010, mixed media on paper.  Courtesy: Gallery Chemould
Untitled, 2010, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Gallery Chemould

III.

Beyond these three elements, we must address Gobhai’s late turn towards what I have called the “image-object”, calibrated at the cusp of painting and sculpture. Between 2007 and 2011, a dynamic and productive interplay emerged in Gobhai’s art between two contending mandates: pictoriality and objecthood. On one hand, the artist was attracted to a sensuous painterliness that commited him to a tactile eroticism of surface, an enjoyment of the associations that it conjures up, the challenge of delivering a persuasive image. On the other hand, he was tempted to assert the claim of the work of art to being an object among other objects, possessing a specific presence and the ability to exert a field of gravitational attraction around itself. Gobhai therefore developed “image-objects”.

Gobhai’s image-objects took the form of what he called “constructed canvases”. These came into being quite providentially in his studio. He was inspired, by his habit of stacking canvases of different sizes against one another, to conjoin two of them and experiment with the possibility of treating them either as a single entity with multiple surfaces or a hybrid entity with a single uneven surface. This improvisation led the artist to inaugurate a series of formal investigations, resulting in works that are suggestive of the cabinet, the altar and the shrine.

Gobhai’s handling of the interplay between pictoriality and objecthood in his late work went beyond the reconciliation of expressive surface and underlying structure that he has mobilised in his previous work. It dramatised the complex interior dialogues that the artist conducted, across the decades, with several artistic positions that have been compressed within his chosen practice of an abstraction tested in the refiner’s fire of minimalism. Among these positions are those associated with Mark Rothko and Lucio Fontana.

I should clarify that I advance this claim on the evidence of Gobhai’s work, and not on the basis of any explicit statement on the subject by the artist. He did not articulate these dialogues consciously. Nor, in the crucible of artistic practice, need they necessarily be so articulated. Rather, we see that they constituted an ongoing and integral aspect of Gobhai’s activity, the records of his conversations with masters and contemporaries.

Every artist addresses, whether privately or in public, his colleagues within what I would call his gharana, following the custom prevalent in the history of Hindustani classical music: that is, the evolving tradition of specific and inter-related reference points, exemplars and contemporaries within which he works. From this perspective, we could read Gobhai’s oeuvre as a venue where he has constantly staged a sophisticated critical engagement with his confreres. And yet the physique and rendition of the raga that emerges are not reducible to anterior models. Conveying its own grace and amplitude, rising and advancing along the architecture of its own motives, the raga sings itself.

It is important to situate the 1931-born Gobhai accurately within the intellectual landscape of late abstract expressionism, early minimalism and the various idioms of conceptualist art. His artistic career was nourished and sustained as much by the debates of the New York scene (he lived and worked there for nearly three decades) as by the Bombay art situation. So that, while Rothko (1903-1970) and Fontana (1899-1968) belonged to a generation much older than Gobhai’s, their contributions were vibrantly alive to him as a young artist discovering his métier at the Pratt Graphic Center and the Art Students League in New York in the early 1960s. They had helped shape the domain of post-World War II global art that he had just entered.

In arriving at his distinctive aesthetic, Gobhai wrestled with the formal and conceptual problems that Rothko and Fontana addressed. He posed his gharana with a set of conceptually vigorous questions: “How does the work of art perform? How does its usage change, with shifts in the manner and context of its viewing? In what ways can it transform the consciousness of its viewer?” The outcomes of this process of argument and negotiation found release in his image-objects – which become the sites of an agon, fields of struggle and declaration.

Embedded within Gobhai’s work – and fiercely evident in his late work – is a confrontation with Rothko’s desire to produce an atmosphere, to make space tactile, to mark the deepening of the wall into a concentration of the twinship of light and darkness, an exit point for the viewer into the sublime. But where Rothko created a film, a suffusion, an afterglow, Gobhai focused on the demanding tension between the deep saturation of glow and the hard-edged contour of line, the evanescence of the image and the substantiality of the object. He thus insisted on balancing the image-object on the precariousness of time, accepting the risks attendant on this choice rather than allowing the image to escape into a vaporous eternity.

I would also read Gobhai’s gesture of incising space, and its consequences, as a way of addressing Fontana’s strategy of producing a potent, auratic field of colour before cutting sharply into it, so as to stimulate a satori experience of interrupted meditation and shock-as-insight. But where Fontana aimed to create the vertiginous sensation of the breakdown of normal time and the opening up of an abyss beyond the certitudes of conventional space, Gobhai deployed his incised line to stake out and demarcate a liberated zone of attentiveness within normality.

And so Mehlli Gobhai took up his position on the ground of time, declining the consolations of eternity. He did not promise the viewer an afterlife of illumination. He challenged us to home in on light within the darkness of the vividly anxious yet promising here and now.

A leaf from one of Mehlli Gobhai's sketchbooks.
A leaf from one of Mehlli Gobhai's sketchbooks.