It is hard to say good bye to Mehlli Gobhai, one of India’s finest abstractionists, and one of the most gracious persons I have known.

Mehlli, who passed away in Mumbai on Thursday at 87, was part of the advisory council at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghrahalaya in Mumbai.

Along with Ranjit Hoskote, he co-curated one of my first projects at the gallery, Nothing is Absolute: A Journey through Abstraction, in 2013. This involved many evenings at Mehlli’s home, sipping coffee and pouring over books in his library, from Juan Eduardo Cirlot’s A dictionary of symbols to Nigel Pennick’s The ancient science of geomancy.

While structure and form played a pivotal role in his art practise, it was in the making of this show that I saw how catholic his influences were. They ranged from the theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to the geometries of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic architecture. His own abstractionist works were pared down—the largest in the Foundation’s collection (an untitled work done in the year 2000) resembles the surface of a parchment dipped in his signature tones of brown verging on black.

Sharp lines cut across the painting, stripping the human body of curves, and reducing it to the bare essentials. This style largely defined his later practice. Mehlli began as a graphic artist. No catalogue escaped his notice. Detail was important; design, line and symmetry were sacred. He illustrated some of the most delightful children’s books such as Laxmi the Bull who wouldn’t and The legend of the orange princess.

As a young artist in the 1950s, Mehlli illustrated the covers of India’s first jazz magazine Blue Rhythm, which was published out of Bombay. Journalist Naresh Fernandes’ blog, Taj Mahal Foxtrot, offers a vivid description of his covers.

After spending nearly 20 years in New York, Mehlli returned to India in the 1980s. “Most of the artists I admired were leaving the city and working elsewhere and my trips to India became increasingly important to me. I was tired and bored by the artificial stimulus of the New York art scene. I had ‘enough already’ as we New Yorkers used to say, and as someone moving towards abstraction in my own work, I was re-discovering the fertile ground that was here in India,” he wrote in his essay to the catalogue of the 2013 exhibition.

Mehlli created great art, he also loved great art. His home was filled with pieces that moved him.

Some were antiques others were artisanal objects that reminded him of the hidden order in nature. He was also a connoisseur of good food. We often debated the merits of one cake shop over another and exchanged recipes. His dog Ari was one of the great loves of his life and his passing left Mehlli disconsolate.

A series of small strokes left Mehlli incapacitated in his final years. The last time I met him was a few months ago.

We sat at his home and shared his favourite blueberry cheesecake from Theobroma.

There was an unfinished work up on the wall and it took me back to the evening before the opening of Nothing is

“It’s terrible!” he had told me then. “All these wonderful evenings are going to end… evenings of fellowship, of conversation, of working together.” Why no Mehlli,” I said, “I will come and visit you often.” A promise I wish I had fulfilled more often.

First Published: Sep 14, 2018 07:30 IST

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