‘Prolific’ is the word that describes the artistic career of the Indo-Canadian artist Panchal Mansaram, who worked every single day over his decades-long career leading to a huge body of work.
Born in India in 1934, Mansaram grew up in Mount Abu, Rajasthan, completed his graduation from the Sir J.J. School of Arts in the late 50s and in 1966 immigrated to Canada with his wife and young daughter in expectations of better prospects for his work. But this didn’t happen for a long time, partly given the conservative collecting environment in Canada during that period which was interested in landscape painting bearing little space for his modernist art works and partly because of his status as an immigrant.
Mansaram’s eclectic body of work includes drawings, paintings, collage, texts, sculptures, Xerox pieces, silkscreen prints, and films where recurrence and reproduction are central to his method. This repetition of certain characters, symbols, figures, and spaces is never identical since Mansaram reconfigures them in ever-changing contexts. Repetition of any kind, might often be assumed to be antithetical to artistic practice but interestingly, for Mansaram, repetition – of motifs, of colours – is a marker of love. He says when one falls in love with something, one sees it everywhere and hence, when he saw something that he liked he would keep seeing it and bring it back to his work. In an almost aphoristic tone, he remarked repetition as a pathway to finding God.
For Mansaram, everything was collage – nature, media, life. His colourful and experimental work is an interesting site for witnessing the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary as well as placing together of disparate elements that generate ever new meanings. For instance, little sticker spaceships are placed in a landscape with a figure of the Hindu god Vishnu. Mansaram’s practice has led him to be identified as a key figure in Indian modernism that unlike western modernism – which broke decisively with the past – was an anti-colonial gesture that embraced a pre-colonial past as a way to invent a new modern art.
Mansaram was always curious about everything and attempted to learn new things; especially the domain of technology interested him. His parsimony given his situation as an immigrant artist on budget led him to dabble with low-cost methods like serigraphy, cyanotype, electrostatic colour transfer, xerography and lasergraphy.
In one of his experiments with xerography, he created an interesting piece – Delwara Column 1 and 2. Photocopy machines had just arrived and Mansaram got hold of a friend who owned a photocopy store. By photocopying images of stone sculptures from his home town and collaging them together he created two columns resembling temple columns. In doing this he puts forth the concerns of long durational art (stone sculptures) in juxtaposition with the technique of photocopying which makes one witness the changing methods for production of images over time.
After encountering the digital in the 1990s and 2000s, he developed his own method – which he called ‘mansa-media’ – through combining printing technologies, collage, digital manipulation, and painting in layers which in the end makes it difficult to separate one method from the other. This fascination with technology was also tied to a deep interest in the rapidly growing domain of media. Upon his arrival in Canada, Mansaram became good friends with the media scholar Marshall McLuhan, whose works he had encountered during his stay in India. Similarly, the mosaic mode that defined Mansaram’s work seemed immediately relevant to McLuhan in the new electronic age where the world was characterised by multiple relation across space and time.
They worked together on various projects. Mansaram designed collage artwork that was reproduced on the covers of McLuhan’s two-volume anthology for high schools, titled Voices of Literature and they also collaborated on a happening titled East-West Intersect. Since the late 1960s onward, intrigued by McLuhan’s proposition that the experience of being in a media-saturated culture is akin in seeing the world through small fragments moving by, as one might through a rear-view mirror, Mansaram produced a series of collage works called Rear View Mirror. One of these collages Rear View Mirror #74, (1969/2011) was a joint endeavour where Mansaram applied paint and images and McLuhan added text, commenting on popular culture and mass media. In 2011, the former further modified the work by adding images of CD-ROM and iPhone in order to contemporize it.
It is intriguing as well as saddening that the work of this exemplary artist did not receive enough attention during most of his career. Yet it is equally inspiring that he continued to work relentlessly every single day despite the neglect. However, in the last decade, his works have started gaining wider recognition among Canadians and global public; the Royal Ontario Museum in 2016 acquired 700 pieces from his archive. An exhibition curated recently by Indu Vashist and Toleen Touq of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto in 2019 that also ran at the Art Gallery of Burlington in 2020, titled P.Mansaram: The Medium is the Medium is the Medium was a huge success. Mansaram passed away in December 2020 just as his work was starting to see the light of the day.