Metallurgical Marvels: The Art of Mauna Panchal
by Shujaat Mirza
At any given point of time art has a lineage in some intangible or tangible sense; artists create works as much from offhand learnings and associations as by the practice and pedagogy of the craft itself. Seen in this light, art that is the accrual of years of absorption is ripe for the picking. And yet it retains a flexible dynamism that has a life of its own in a way that transcends the linearity of place and time. This is our heritage and we connect the dots with what we already know and by relating that to our continual journey.
The works of Mauna Panchal reflect this eagerness to meticulously create something that is lasting as well as liminal. She does this by combining the two poles of form and process as a single entity that borrows from tradition as well as reverts and upturns the handed-down certainty, reinventing the wheel of its genesis, as it were. We can sit down and make sense of the work as if at an open-studio event, except that here it is the work that speaks to us and shares its journey and not the artist. Much of recent art skips this element of native simplicity wherein the artist leaves it to the viewer to ascertain the claims instead of pushing them to a particular point of view, settled discourse or outcome. To be able to judge art objectively is a pleasure rarely afforded to us. Mauna’s art makes no amends to situate itself in a particular current, even as she draws her strength and skill sets from having observed her father, the renowned artist late Kanu Panchal.
An alumnus of the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, Baroda (1984 batch, mural) she is almost a veteran in her field, having taught in a fine art college at Bhavnagar and now fully devoted to artmaking. Her journey comes full circle at perhaps an opportune time in her recent solo show ‘Paintings in Metal’, at Hutheesing Visual Art Centre, Ahmedabad, which showcases her body of work that gives us a fair estimation of the qualitative progress of her art journey.
In her works in paper-mâché and metal paintings, she takes us to a bygone era, almost like a throwback to the modernist claims of artists who were active in the 1970s and 1980s. In this respect her works come most near to the oeuvre of the late maestro sculptor Piraji Sagara whose rusticity and exploratory indigeneity fused well within the matrix of the then evolving crosscurrents of an organic modernity that soared on the confidence of a search for a more lasting idiom to denote and specify the yearnings of the times into a malleable art – an art that enthusiastically sought out new mediums and hybrid forms to evocate the inner underpinnings.
In her metal paintings Mauna has used a 24-mm square German silver sheet (aluminium), on which she also incorporates metals like bronze and copper as well as pieces of treated polished natural wood. Cutting the sheets into different shapes but broadly conforming to a set dimension to give continuity to the series, she places them onto a dark-coated plywood or MDF sheet to enhance the contrast with the muted shades of the metal sculpture. This creates at times an intriguing and beguiling bas-relief effect and sometimes a mural-like feel within the framed space, giving the works in a much smaller dimension a feel of larger sized sculptures.
Her process of making the forms come up on the metal sheets involves sketching over the metal sheet and then hammering and beating the sheet to create different shapes and textures through a meticulous execution over hours on end. At times, she also does reverse hammering at the back of the sheet to contour and chisel the raised surface; hammering from the top does the exact opposite by indenting the surface to create a design. She also uses pieces of copper that she nails into the sheet and also uses nails in their hundreds to create a textural design, all the while cognizant of using the best grade material so that despite years of exposure to the natural elements they are able to retain their original form. After the completion of sculpting on the metal is done, she starts the application of enamel on the metal as desired. Being one of the most durable paints available, this adds an additional layer of longevity to the work. Finally, she polishes it with a protective coat. The arduous process requires her to constantly and dexterously work on each work – it is almost like creating a mini sculpture each time that can last you a lifetime.
Her works are so open-ended that we can read ourselves into them and the ease with which she retains a complex story within a simplicity of expression is a testament to her innate mastery of the medium. From geometric patterns and their playfulness, to a sort of independent cosmology and symbolic language she endows some works with, to a sense of fleeting figures and movements, to a cosmos captured in a compact space, to an oblique reference to architectures of the past, her world is teeming with meanings, associations and references that dots the inner eye of the viewer.
Mauna has also showcased a few of her earlier works in pâpier-maché which even after 35 years retain a freshness and show no signs of wear and tear, even as she uses newspapers to make the pulp but consciously avoids the use of natural additives as these can later lead to infestation of insects and thus cause irreparable damage to the sculptures. In addition, she rather adeptly uses the Victorian era technique of adding linseed oil to act as a protection against moisture. Her rare sense of responsibility to care for the upkeep of the artwork is admirable, which present-day artists could keep in mind since art collectors are seldom bothered about such technicalities. In the longer run this is the only thing that can come between a work of art staying as pristine as possible or degrading much earlier than expected. The objects she has made from pâpier-maché look so realistic that one might mistake a box to have been made of wooden sticks and another one be made from mud or clay. In these sculptures she uses traditional motifs to good effect, showing her familiarity with different art forms and adaptability to diverse methods as well.
Mauna Panchal’s art reveals a sensitive soul who diligently hones her craft and keeps adding versatility to her practice. This stands her in good stead as a pioneering female artist from a time when there were few women sculptors of standing. Her journey is an inspiration for future women artists as they continue to seek new frontiers to conquer and make art in their own image and experience.
(All images are courtesy of Shujaat Mirza and the artist, Mauna Panchal.)
Shujaat Mirza is an intrepid art aficionado, curator and critic, with a passion for
multidisciplinary art. His primary area of interest is art at the intersection of visual aesthetics and verbal semantics. He is also a poet and writer and his work has been published online as well as in literary magazines.