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Cut short by the pandemic, a tight edit of Mehlli Gobhai's retrospective has found a new home

"One of Mehlli’s favourite tests for the effect an art work had on you was expressed in this way: “Does it make you go ‘A-ha!’ or does it make you go ‘So what?’" - Nancy Adajania

August 14, 2021 / 11:42 AM IST
Installation view of polychromes painted by Mehlli Gobhai in the 1970s. The paintings are part of the 'Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies' show at the Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, till August 31, 2021.

Installation view of polychromes painted by Mehlli Gobhai in the 1970s. The paintings are part of the 'Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies' show at the Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, till August 31, 2021.

Over many years now, Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote have, individually and jointly, curated important exhibitions of art in India and abroad, featuring works by major Indian artists.

Their latest exhibition, Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies, featuring a swirl of paintings and artworks by abstractionist Mehlli Gobhai, is showing at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, till August 31, 2021.

Energy Diagram by Mehlli Gobhai Energy Diagram by Mehlli Gobhai

Epiphanies edits and transforms a larger retrospective that was cut short by the pandemic. Adajania and Hoskote shared insights into their curatorial processes for the show: a glimpse into their ‘thinking toolkit’, a look at the nails and hammers behind the glamour of curating it. They also spoke of how their love for the late Gobhai entailed being critical of some of his diktats about exhibiting his work. They shared tips and tricks about working together as spouses and co-curators.

Edited excerpts:

With art galleries closed because of the pandemic, online exhibitions and virtual walkthroughs emerged last year... 

Nancy Adajania: During these last 16 months, we too have been denizens of online viewing rooms and the Zoomscape. For the Mehlli Gobhai retrospective, Don’t Ask Me About Colour, which closed barely ten days after its opening at the NGMA, Mumbai, we had developed an online presence for it through a sequence of installation views on the Chemould website. However, Mehlli’s paintings reveal themselves only gradually. Each one is like a burnished palimpsest and exerts a special aura that needs to be experienced in physical space.

Moreover, this retrospective was the outcome of years of research and documentation. Each of its chapters portrayed the evolution of different phases of his oeuvre, as well as his expanded practice as an advertising professional, illustrator of children’s books, collector of classical  and subaltern art, as well as rare 8 mm footage that he had filmed while on his travels through north India. While it was impossible to replicate the grandeur of the NGMA exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road (CPR), we took heart in the fact that the ascending vertical spiral of the NGMA could be replaced by an intimate horizontal spiral at CPR where viewers could access the exhibition from multiple vantage points. As a viewer, wherever you turn, you will see various glimpses of the artist’s journey.

Close-up of a polychrome work in 'Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies'. Close-up of a polychrome work in 'Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies'.

It would seem that the pandemic has boosted the Indian art market, because paintings by major Indian artists are fetching record prices. Does that explain the timing of this exhibition? 

Ranjit Hoskote: Quite frankly, the timing of our exhibition, Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies, has more to do with judging the window of time that we might have, as the Mumbai lockdown eases up a bit, allowing viewers a measure of mobility, and before some yet-unforeseen event overtakes us in these highly uncertain times!

About the art market, yes, it is true that the pandemic has given collectors the repose to focus on their priorities and approach art with a renewed measure of serious attention. This upward trend was evident throughout 2020 but was interrupted in the early months of this year, as the pandemic took on a monstrous magnitude, especially in Delhi and the north, with many people personally affected and deeply shaken by it.

Life Studies by Mehlli Gobhai. Life Studies by Mehlli Gobhai.

Would you please unpack the title of the exhibition? 

Ranjit Hoskote: In Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies, we have focused on the breakthrough moments in Mehlli’s practice – the moments when he was struck, as though with the force of a revelation, by a new pictorial proposition, a new set of techniques, a new external stimulus, a new approach to his form and material. So, from each phase of his artistic evolution, we chose a robust body of work that best conveyed the urgency of that particular moment – whether the explosion of colour in Mandi and New York in the 1970s, with the figure vestigially present, or the swerve towards pure linearity and a palette of blacks and umbers in 1979-80. Or the deep dive into a luminous darkness in 1981-82, compounded from dry pastel, graphite and aluminium powder, and from which all vestiges of the figure had been banished.

Nancy Adajania: Or then his turn, across the late 1990s and early 2000s, towards the ‘constructed canvas’, an object that crossed the boundary between sculptural proposition and painted surface. Or the late, pared-down works on paper, austere in their axial and diagonal patterns, their surface like weathered stone or well-worn leather.

One of Mehlli’s favourite tests for the effect an art work had on you was expressed in this way: “Does it make you go ‘A-ha!’ (his hands would go up into the air) or does it make you go ‘So what?’ (he would shrug his shoulders and make a grimace).” What we’ve tried to do in Epiphanies, is aim for a sequence of ‘A-ha’ moments!

Installation View: The three-cube sculpture in its context in the show. Installation view of Gobhai's three-cube sculpture in its context in Mehlli Gobhia: Epiphanies, on till August 31, 2021, at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai.

What perceptions about Gobhai, among art lovers and collectors, did you seek to question through the exhibition?

Ranjit Hoskote: We had three primary aims in presenting Mehlli’s oeuvre to art lovers afresh. First, to dispel the genial but mistaken belief that he had essentially painted the same kind of ‘dark paintings’ throughout his life. This is why we showed his brilliant polychrome paintings of the 1970s, rendered in watercolour, casein and elements of graphite and biro, with their glorious reds, yellows, blues and oranges.

Second, as Nancy has said, we were committed to present his expanded practice in the round, in its fullness. So we emphasised his lifelong practice of making life studies, figurative and head studies, and still life drawings, as a counterpoint to the rigorous abstraction with which he is better associated. To us, these are not departures from a main current of abstraction in Mehlli’s practice, but rather, are all facets of the polyhedron that was his artistic totality.

Third, we literally wanted to present his paintings in a new light. Mehlli’s dogmatic approach to hanging his work (as low as possible) and in subdued (verging on dim) light had long prevented viewers from seeing his work in its true glory, also leading to the belief in a ‘Gobhai hang’ as proper to his work. We deliberately broke with this uncritical approach and calibrated, both at the NGMA and at Chemould, a careful combination of wall washers and spotlights to reveal the layers of alternate darkness and luminosity, colour and shadow, incised line and chromatic skin from which his paintings are built up.

Gobhai's energy diagrams

How and why did you use storytelling in this exhibition? 

Nancy Adajania: I am happy you’ve brought up the theme of storytelling. We designed the mise-en-scene for Epiphanies to articulate our exhibition narrative, which was an intersection between a chronological axis and a pattern of biographical glimpses and asides, or to deploy my favourite trope – a series of jhankis and adkathas. Overall, the exhibition scenography was spatialised as a horizontal spiral to place the various stories of Mehlli’s breakthrough moments in adjacency with each other.

The exhibition narrative for this show unfolds through art-historical ground clearing, our portraiture and contextualisation of the artist, and a recounting of Mehlli’s delightfully idiosyncratic repertoire of anecdotes, especially about the remarkable friends and teachers who he met during his two-decade-long residence in New York.

We wanted our viewers to have a thread that they could follow into the labyrinth that is the artist’s life and mind. And Mehlli was a complex personality. He was at once warm, generous and exasperating. He would hold you in his embrace and yet keep you at a distance. He was both gregarious and solitary, resisting vulnerability yet inviting encounter.

In consonance with this, our story shuttles between a rectilinear and a curving logic. You stand anchored by a wide, semi-circular vitrine holding the artwork for his children’s book, Lakshmi, the Water Buffalo Who Wouldn’t. From the comfort of this viewing platform, you look at Mehlli’s almost monastic paintings of 1979-80 on a long wall dominated by straight line, slant line, zigzag and pendulum curve. Mehlli’s talisman was the plumb line – headlong and straight in its descent towards gravity, but describing a gentle semi-circular movement in space. We wanted to commemorate both these aspects, these subliminal rhythms of Mehlli’s art, in the show.

What considerations, artistic and business, drove your choice of paintings here? Are there paintings that you wanted in and couldn't include? Why not? 

Ranjit Hoskote: For Don’t Ask Me about Colour as well as Epiphanies, we had complete carte blanche from the Estate of Mehlli Gobhai as well as Chemould, which has supported both exhibitions. For Epiphanies, obviously, we had to be realistic in terms of the scale of the venue, while yet developing a museum-level exhibition in a gallery context. While CPR is a superbly large gallery, we could not possibly bring into it all the 250 objects – art works, archival materials, and ephemera – that had comprised the NGMA retrospective. So we re-configured the contents in an editorial spirit, selecting 95 works and a tight selection of archival materials, for the present show.  We see Epiphanies as a persuasive invitation to the universe of Mehlli Gobhai.

What aspects of your curatorial process would have changed if Gobhai were alive? What was your friendship with Gobhai like?

 Nancy Adajania: Very simply, there would have been no retrospective if Mehlli had been alive. We had many conversations with him about a large-scale exhibition devoted to his work, but he had a curious dread even of the word ‘retrospective’, always insisting that such a show could only be organised after an artist’s death. This was tied up with his fear of mortality, and he resisted the idea even while, in his last years, having given it his provisional assent. In the event, his wish has prevailed, and the show has taken place after his passing. And in some sense, he was right. The pattern appears in its kaleidoscopic richness only after the life that generated it has passed into history. Mehlli was one of our dearest friends, and – as friends do – we respected his foibles even when they drove us up the wall!

Did curating this exhibition change or add to your perception of him or your relationship with memories of him? 

Ranjit Hoskote: This exhibition is a tribute to our long friendship with Mehlli, which began in 1990 and continued until his passing in 2018. Every moment of our involvement in it was attended by refreshed memories – of stories, jokes, journeys undertaken together, our annual New Year holidays with him at his rural retreat in Gholvad, of ‘Mehlli-isms’, his favourite turns of phrase. Some of them feature in our wall texts. ‘Shit or get off the pot!’ was one, a 1960s New York mandate to get cracking and act on one’s artistic destiny. Another, referring to the artist in relation to his audience, was his teacher Knox Martin’s sage advice: ‘The bartender can never be tipsy.”

Is it true that many buyers appreciate painters more after they die than when they were alive?

Nancy Adajania: There is no fixed rule. For instance, some artists, even if they have had great visibility, can fall right off the map if their critical and commercial after-life is mismanaged. Others achieve posthumous fame. A benchmark event like a retrospective does make a huge difference. It reveals the long arc of an artist’s journey, the totality of her/his achievement which the periodic solo cannot guarantee. The difference between a solo and a retrospective is the difference between a snapshot and an album.

From the responses we are receiving from collectors as well as viewers at large, there is a renewed excitement about Mehlli’s work, a sense of re-discovery.

Can you give us a peek into the nitty-gritty of the curatorial process? The hammers and nails behind the glamour? The conceptual thinking, and then the logistics, for instance? The negotiations with Gobhai’s heirs? Roughly how long did it all take from conception to execution? 

Ranjit Hoskote: It is really a pity that many viewers – and far too many aspiring curators – see only the glamour, and not the intellectual and physical labour, of the curatorial process. For the life of us – and we’ve grown up in the art world – we cannot understand what is so glamorous about the art world! For both Nancy and me, making an exhibition is a hands-on activity. We establish the exhibition narrative as a storyline in brief propositions, and the exhibition design as the spatial flow of the show through drawings and mappings on the floor plan of the space. Narrative and design are then knit together. The part we both enjoy most is the actual installation. We oversee the hang, lay out and arrange the salon-style grids on bubble-wrap on the floor, check and double-check every interval between works and the levels of every work with the installers, test our sightlines, and go rigorously through the lighting rehearsal on the last evening before the opening. We also enjoy writing the wall texts, as soft thresholds for our viewers.

In preparing both the retrospective and Epiphanies, our discussions with the Estate of Mehlli Gobhai – Jerry Pinto and Parminder Thapar – were most cordial, as were our discussions with Shireen Gandhy of Chemould Prescott Road. Chemould and the Estate have been very supportive throughout, as has Mehlli’s nephew and heir Dinshaw Gobhai.

The entire process, embracing both exhibitions, has spanned about five years.

What's next in your curatorial calendars?

Nancy Adajania: I am immersed in research and preparation for the first-ever retrospective of the fibre artist Nelly Sethna, titled The Unpaved, Crusty, Earthy Road as part of the Cymroza@50 celebrations. This show will take place at Chatterjee & Lal.

Ranjit Hoskote: I am working on Mapping the Lost Spectrum, a survey exhibition based on the Pheroza & Jamshyd Godrej Collection, as part of Cymroza@50. This exhibition will be held at Pundole’s, Hamilton House.

You are spouses as well as co-curators. What are some things that couples should think about while considering curating exhibitions together, or in general, doing business together? 

Nancy Adajania: Ranjit and I have very different styles of making exhibitions. Sometimes I get a little impatient with his more schematic and architectural approach, which is based on sightlines, enfilades, blocs and thresholds. My own preference is for a cinematic approach, which unfolds as a series of montages, linked by meanders, jump cuts and wraparound passages. Each of us comes to curating from our training and affinities – Ranjit has been a fellow traveller of architecture since his teenage years, and I trained as a film-maker at the FTII, Pune.

Ranjit Hoskote: It goes without saying that mutual respect for one another’s practice is the cornerstone of the collaboration when spouses work together. With this goes an agreement on the objectives of the project, developed through egoless discussion, a healthy give-and-take of views. And it is vital that we acknowledge one another’s styles of working, however different these might be, and however impatient we might be with each other’s way of handling the pace of the project, team members, infrastructure, and other variables.

Of course there are moments of disagreement and mutual scepticism, as in any collaboration, but we work our way through these. When Nancy and I collaborate, we eventually always achieve a happy synergy – which is reflected in the final outcome.

In Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies, I like to think that we have married the long sightlines, pivots and thresholds of my ‘architectural’ approach, to the depth of field, luminous foci, dissolves and Eisensteinian shock montage of Nancy’s ‘cinematic’ approach.
Suhit Kelkar is a writer whose journalism and poetry have appeared in publications from India and abroad. He is the author of a collection of poetry, and one of poems and photos. He tweets @suhitkelkar.