The Untitled Painting
Jerry Pinto introduces Mehlli Gobhai – his choices and colours, images and inspirations. Chintan Girish Modi is dazzled.
Jerry Pinto’s exceptional range as a writer continues to astound me, and I have grown particularly fond of the books that he has written for children. His latest one is called The Secret World of Mehlli Gobhai: The Man Who Found Art Everywhere (2021), and has been published by Pratham Books. The choice of publisher is a significant one because it is a non-profit organization that publishes in multiple Indian languages and keeps costs low to promote reading among children.
In this new book, he writes about one of India’s foremost abstractionists, Mehlli Gobhai (1932-2018), with the authority of a critic and the warmth of a friend. Hitchcock-like, he also makes a guest appearance. The book opens with a sketch of Pinto and Gobhai “walking in the hills around Gholvad” in the month of September when “the rains had turned parts of the countryside green.” It also sets the ground for readers to understand what Gobhai saw: “Life has geometry underlying it.”
Parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians and others who buy books for children will be pleased to see how this book strikes a balance between biographical details and art appreciation. Gobhai’s childhood, his parents Minocher and Perin, the impact of the Second World War, his pet loris, his work in advertising, his friendships, and his life in London, New York and Mumbai – are all part of this book. They offer insights into his choice of subjects as well as the changes in his colour palette.
“He was fascinated by folktales and classics of Greece and Persia. He loved the Gita Govinda by Jayadeva and Mughal miniatures and Rajput paintings. You can see how all these crept into his work,” writes Pinto. He also notes that the artist used “great big swathes of colour” during his stay in New York “perhaps because he was missing India” but adopted a “quieter” colour palette after he returned to India.
People who look at Gobhai’s work are often keen to understand why he left his paintings untitled. In the book, Pinto asks him to share the reason behind this. Gobhai says that he wants the viewer to name the paintings based on what they see, instead of forcing a particular meaning onto them.The book includes a few images from Gobhai’s large body of work, which was showcased at his retrospective Don’t Ask Me About Colour at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai in 2020. Pinto invites readers to engage with them in the manner that Gobhai intended. He writes, “With modern art, you go on a journey. You have to look and look again. You have to untrain your eyes and set your mind free. You have to try and follow the painter’s thought.”
All the illustrations in this book, both the black-and-white and the colour ones, are the handiwork of Kripa, who specializes in working on books for children. In the past, she has collaborated with Pinto on another lovely book called The Art Gallery on Princess Street (2019). They make a good team and their work will be a source of delight to anyone who encounters it.