Story by Monolina Bhattacharyya.
The following article was written in 2019 by Dr. Monolina Bhattacharyya-Ray. Tarunika Mansaram passed away later that year, while Panchal Mansaram passed in December 2020. We were honoured to exhibit Mansaram’s work in our project launch exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Decemeber 2019, which Mansaram was kind enough to attend and celebrate Hamilton art with us. We appreciate and honour his great contribution to the community and hope this page serves as a celebration of his life and work.
Indo-Canadian artist Panchal Mansaram (1934-2020) has been a multimedia artist working in Hamilton for 50 years. He is best known as a leader for a new generation of modern artists who created collage art, an art form that focuses on layering of different media on canvas to convey a message. Mansaram became synonymous with Mansamedia, the new movement in collage that he created and named after himself. Mansamedia is a unique and individualistic approach to modern art.
Mansaram grew up in the Mount Abu region of India, a scenic landscape mixed with natural beauty and manmade architectural magnificence, perched on a rocky terrain of the Aravalli Hills in the western state of Rajasthan. His journey to becoming an artist was not smooth but nonetheless interesting – a collage of his destinies, struggles and miracles. Defying his father’s wishes that he become an engineer with a traditionally secure future, Mansaram embarked on a path that was uncertain, and even risky. To fulfil his own dream, Mansaram worked against cultural stereotypes that artists are poor, unkempt and vagrant, whose works of love and labor are not noticed or appreciated by society. His father would not invest in an education that would bring no sure returns, leaving Mansaram to make his own way.
Opportunity, Talent and Destiny
Along the way, fortune followed Mansaram closely, and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He recalls with fondness significant incidents that changed his life as a media artist, crediting his initial journey into the world of art to people he met along his way. A passerby made a fleeting reference to the famous Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai) to young Mansaram on the streets of his village which sparked his interest in the possibility of attending. Shortly after, a neighbour referred him to a friend living in Bombay close to the J.J. School of Art who would let him sleep on the floor of his apartment while he studied in a city not only unknown to him but where accommodation was at a premium.
Post-colonial, independent India was a place where ideas of hope and hard work could fulfil aspirations. New avenues opened up for those who dared to dream. Mansaram was a product of a new India and aspired to explore new trajectories in art practice. The J.J. School of Art, established in 1857 in the British colonial era, was the premier fine art school in the country and it was known worldwide for its specialization in drawing, modeling and draughtsmanship, incorporating the rich diversity of Indian resources and growing in multiple directions to create pioneer artists in every sphere of its teaching, especially in the field of modern art. Mansaram was indeed in the right place at the right time.
The Shaping of an Artist
At the J.J. School of Art, Mansaram worked hard and excelled. He graduated with the school’s Gold Medal for excellence and won the Best Artist award at the State Art Exhibition for his series Impressions from Nepal, which was exhibited at Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. Negotiating between his struggles, hopes and the resources he had access to, Mansaram carried on his work with zeal. He did not ignore the vast art heritage of India, which consisted of not just historically produced paintings but also sculpture, folk arts, tribal arts and contemporary mediums such as billboards, calendar art, prints, posters and computer art. He appreciated the aesthetic in all of these diverse forms, taking on the challenge to incorporate them all in a unique process of blending and layering, and transposing them into a freshly refurbished work of art.
The output of his efforts got amply noticed. By stroke of luck and ability, at the end of his training at the J.J. School of Art, he landed a Dutch government scholarship at the State Academy of Fine Arts, the Rijks Akademie in Amsterdam, beating the odds of not only hundreds of eligible candidates but also defying political nepotism at top levels.
Struggles, Fortunes and Survival: Mansaram in Rijks
Arriving to an unknown foreign land more than half a century before the advent of Google, Amsterdam did not offer a bed of roses for a young Indian like Mansaram. Survival, simply in terms of food and language, was a challenge, so much so that it prompted Mansaram to almost quit the program and turn back. But luck followed him once again. There were many intersecting incidents and chance meetings with people, ordinary and extraordinary, who helped Mansaram achieve his goals early on and flourish as an artist, who he would remember for their graciousness throughout his long career.
At the Rijks Akademie, Mansaram was widely exposed to the contemporary European art scene and especially the CoBrA group, which consisted of artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam who had been impacted by World War II. These young artists of the new post-war generation upheld grassroots art, produced mainly by children and those with special needs, defying centuries old high-art traditions to instead encourage spontaneity and free flow of imagination. For Mansaram, the intersection of new resources, new techniques of producing visual images and new ideologies became the launchpad for his ideas with which he would experiment in his work.
Mansaram soon got tired of the curriculum at Rijks which could not satisfy his quest for learning contemporary modern art, nor his desire to experiment in new methodologies to create unique forms. At that point, he felt the desperate need for his own studio, and yet could not afford one. But once again, at the brink of his frustration, he got lucky, this time getting a chance meeting with the ex-director William Sandberg of the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art who arranged with the city to lease him a studio. Simultaneously, he picked his favorite subjects to study at the arts academy, which included etching and intaglio, among others. Mansaram applied his new learning of various techniques and media to create new ideas of art.
Towards Canada: a Fortuitous Move
Mansaram was married to an art educator, Tarunika. While Mansaram was in Amsterdam, Tarunika, who was the assistant director in a children’s art museum in Delhi, had an opportunity to study art education in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Mansaram briefly visited his wife in New York, getting an exposure into modern art and the city’s museums, and traveled back to Amsterdam via Montreal. For the first time, he had set foot in Canada, albeit in transit. Little did he know that ultimately, he would relocate to Canada and make it his permanent home.
But not before a brief stint in Calcutta (Kolkata) with films after his return to India from Amsterdam. There he came across the Oscar winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray and got exposed to Indian cinema as an art form. Later he would study filmmaking in Ryerson University in Toronto and try his hands on short films. Shortly thereafter he went to live in Delhi, where fortuitously he connected with the Canadian embassy and decided to explore the world further, a decision which was favored by luck and changed his life forever.
Mansaram and his young family moved to Canada in 1966, shortly stepping into Montreal and then Toronto. Mansaram’s early career as an artist in Canada is a fascinating story. His move to Toronto was eventful for many reasons and opened up new vistas for him in the domain of visual arts. Eventually, he moved to Hamilton and settled down there.
One of the defining moments of Mansaram’s interest in real-life images, which changed his approach to art, came when he stumbled upon a map of Amsterdam. To him, the map appeared to be a collage of the physical geography of Amsterdam, and he wanted to incorporate that into his work. That was one of the first collage paintings he created and it became his identity as an artist for over fifty years.
Mansaram and McLuhan: A New Collaboration and a New Collage
“The work of Mansaram presents a natural dialogue of the East and West.” – Marshall McLuhan
One of Mansaram’s most propitious moments was his meeting with Marshall McLuhan soon after his arrival in Toronto. McLuhan was a celebrated professor at the University of Toronto, a controversial philosopher, a communications theorist and the author of Understanding Media, in which he studied the effects of media and technology on western society and culture. His key theory, the medium is the message, stressed that the definition of a culture relies on the medium of communication in which it is expressed, thereby making the medium itself the message of that culture.
McLuhan was also fascinated by the intersection of eastern and western cultures, and he envisaged their cultural exchange to take place through media. For Mansaram, this was profound, and in sync with his own notions of the medium being the message of his art. He too perceived changes in the society as developments that could be expressed in new visual ways. Through the medium of his collage, Mansaram applied McLuhan’s vision and theory, with its focus on the role of medium in his works, transforming them into more sensory objects that would appeal directly to human consciousness and make contemporary societal changes acceptable. It also allowed him the diasporic space to negotiate his Eastern experience with that of the West, particularly the sensibilities of the East with the rapid electronic transformation of the West, his past with his ever-changing present, and would produce images that simultaneously mirrored each other. In 1967, Mansaram created East West Intersect for exhibition at the Isaac’s Gallery, his first multimedia venture exploring McLuhan’s ideas.
In 1969-70, Mansaram and McLuhan collaborated on a painting series where Mansaram portrayed in art the philosophies of McLuhan. Thus was born the Rear View Mirror series, which represented elements of natural ecologies, media networks and religious symbols. Through these paintings, Mansaram looks at the past while also looking ahead to the future, thus creating for the viewers a sense of the continuum between changing social and cultural epochs. Within the series, Rear View Mirror # 74, was a duet where McLuhan wrote n his own handwriting his ideas on the painting itself. This series was exhibited at the Picture Loan Gallery in Toronto. Mansaram also created a short film on McLuhan.
The exhibit traveled to seven art galleries in Canada and then to New Delhi and Mumbai. It was in the 1970s that Mansaram extensively worked on collage, using fabric, mixing serigraph, xerography transfer and blueprints. His work in collaboration with the American artist Jim Ridlon, Duet, featured blueprints on fabric and paper and was exhibited in 1975 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
Mansaram and the art scene in Hamilton
Mansaram had moved to Hamilton in search of a living in 1966. He was in fact living in Hamilton and commuting to Toronto for his Rear View Mirror series, which was still being readied for exhibition. With barely any experience in teaching, he secured a job at the art history department of McMaster University. Mansaram had to seek other opportunities where he would be able to balance his artistry with earning a livelihood. By sheer stroke of luck, he initially landed an ideal part-time position at the newly opened Dundas Valley School of Art to teach mixed media and collage to students who wanted to pursue art as hobby. Soon, he was offered a fulltime position with the Hamilton School Board at Central Secondary School, to teach art to students who seriously wanted to pursue art as a career. Side by side, he continued to generate and exhibit his art at different events and art fairs across Canada.
The art scene in Hamilton in the mid-late 60s was steadily evolving, and progressively unfolded before Mansaram which helped him evolve as one of the pioneer artists in the city. Mansaram was a witness to this expanding art scene in the city. More art galleries began to open due to private initiatives of individual artists, many of whom were his students at Central Secondary.
The Birth of Mansamedia
An atypical artist who experimented with different media, Mansaram created a form of art that became synonymous with him. He called it Mansamedia, which aptly summarizes the work that he became known for. Mansaram noticed collage everywhere, in nature, in items of everyday use, on the walls, on the ground. Mansamedia entailed a process of assembling pieces of different material on a canvas and thus creating collage as an artwork, a practical technique that conveys a sense of harmony with the natural environment. Collage gave Mansaram the freedom and scope to experiment with art: to collect, juxtapose and layer items of the everyday over his painted surfaces. Gradually, he introduced technology, superimposing computer graphics and printed material to create harmonious surfaces that created volatile effects. There was not a medium that Mansaram did not explore: drawing, painting, collage, text, sculpture, xerox, silkscreen printmaking, lasergraphics, rock art and film. Throughout his life, he collected small objects, of little or no significance, noted ordinary street scenes, took photographs of everyday scenes, which he then incorporated into his works, layering them with paint and other print objects or superimposing them on photographs and giving them new life and new meaning.
Through his artworks he invokes his experience of his travel through time and place, his spirituality and his diasporic experience, themes to which he hoped the average person could relate to easily. Mansaram believes that the scope of collage is endless as it offers the space to express anything. Collage was his way of connecting with Canadian art in a way that did not disrepute the existing scenario. At the same time, it was a channel of preserving his Indian heritage in Canada. It was promoting a bilateral collaboration which was yet to happen in the domain of art in Canada. In the process, the Canadian art scene witnessed through Mansaram a new-fangled technique in the production of visual art.
In the 1980s, Mansaram did large format lasergraphic works, inspired by his immediate environment such as his backyard and school. Some of them, such as Moving Landscape, At the School Lockers and New York-New York traveled overseas and were exhibited at the Piramal Gallery in Mumbai. Mansaram continued to create images in Mansamedia, focusing on diversity, urban landscapes and natural environment.
Mansaram: An Artist To Be Continued
Mansaram retired from teaching and now devotes his time to his art. At one point in his career, Mansaram was despairing that no one was buying his art. But today, his art is valued highly and is frequently exhibited in different galleries. In 2016, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) purchased 700 of his works, with a view to celebrate and preserve them both as Indian and Canadian contemporary art. This makes the ROM the largest collector of his works in the world. Mansaram’s accomplishments are countless. His works have traveled all over the world, a documentary has been produced on his life and work, his art is a frequent topic of academic research and he remains a great inspiration to collage artists.
About the author: Monolina Bhattacharyya received her MA/Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in Art History. She has taught at McMaster University, worked for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, curated exhibitions, and enjoys research, presentation, public speaking and writing in this area of her interest. Simultaneously, she has also been engaged in several multicultural community organizations as speaker, coordinator and administrator, and actively promoted cultural interactions among grade school students, seniors and women groups in Canada and the US. Monolina is currently an active member of the Hamilton Arts Council and Art Advisory Commission of the city of Hamilton, among others.
The following oral history video was filmed in October 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Credits and further reading
Special thanks to the Royal Ontario Museum.
Video: P Mansaram: COLLAGE!
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