Shakila Sheikh lives in a simple house, located 30 km away from Kolkata. Every day, she cooks and tends to her family, like any ordinary woman in her village. But when inspiration strikes, Shakila walks to a mud shed outside her house, leaves the role of a homemaker behind, and becomes a world-renowned artist!
Shakila, who once spent her days sleeping on the streets of Kolkata, has today, sold her art in France, Germany, Norway and America—all because of her phenomenal talent and her ‘Baba.’ While he could never take Shakila off the streets, he encouraged her to do that herself.
Shakila was barely a year old when her father left her family for good. Following this, her mother, Zaheran Bibi, started travelling for 40 kms, from Mograghat to Kolkata every day, to sell vegetables, taking her young daughter along with her.
Speaking to the Weekend Leader, Shakila says, “She didn’t allow me to work but used to take me to the city for a tour. I loved seeing the trams and buses plying through the roads and slept on the pavements while she worked.”
It is on these streets that Shakila would meet the man who changed her life forever.
Baldev Raj Panesar was a retired government employee and a passionate painter who frequented the streets where Shakila and Zaheran Bibi sold vegetables. Every day, he would purchase eggs, chocolates, pencils and magazines and distribute them among the underprivileged kids. Gradually, he earned the nickname ‘Dimbabu’ from the kids—’dim’ is egg in Bengali.
While all the children ran to Dimbabu for the goodies, Shakila refused to do so.
“I’d never accepted anything from a stranger, so I did not take anything from him,” Shakila told the Live Mint, adding that, “One day, he asked me who I had come with, and then proceeded to meet my mother and convince her to send me to school.”
Although her mother was worried that Dimbabu, who, by then, had become ‘Baba’ for Shakila, would traffic her young daughter, he eventually earned their trust.
He helped Shakila gain admission to a Kolkata school, securing the young girl’s future. But fate, and more particularly her mother, had different plans for her.
Not willing to raise a child on the streets, Zaheran Bibi married a 12-year-old Shakila to Akbar Sheikh, a man who was 15 years older to her and already married. Shakila shifted to Sarjapur along with her new family.
“He used to travel to Kolkata to sell vegetables, but his income was not enough to look after his two wives,” says Shakila. So she approached her Baba for help, and he suggested that she start making thongas—paper bags—to support her husband.
One fine day, Baba invited Shakila and Akbar to one of his exhibitions. “We were not enthusiastic about going as we knew nothing about art but had to go because of Baba. While I just gave a passing look to the paintings, Shakila looked at them very keenly,” says Akbar.
“She told Baba the four paintings she liked the most. It turned out that the same paintings were the most popular. Baba was very excited and happy that his daughter had an eye for the arts!”
After the exhibition, Shakila insisted that Akbar get her cardboard sheets and coloured paper—paints were expensive—and she started to work on her very first collage—a depiction of vegetables and fruits that stunned not only Akbar but Baba and his fellow artists too!
After that, there was no going back for Shakila. Baba, along with his friends, started giving Shakila cardboard sheets, newspapers and magazines to make more collages. Shakila too, developed her art, from vegetables to Goddesses to domestic violence—she depicts everything on the canvas.
With time, Shakila received more and more encouragement, not just from Baba, but other art enthusiasts. In 1990, in her first ever exhibition, Shakila earned Rs 70,000!
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Today, there are professionals who handle the sales of Shakila’s art. Many of her artworks now adorn houses in various parts of India, Europe and the USA! But even with such fame, Shakila remains humble as ever.
For one, she says she can never name any of her collages as well as other artists do, and she also cannot explain a deeper meaning behind any of her paintings.
“I can never explain what they mean,” she told the Live Mint, adding, “I watch a bit of TV—we bought it when I was given Star Ananda’s Shera Bangali Puroshkar (the Best Bengali award) in 2010—and read the newspapers once in a while, but I can’t even think up titles for my own work.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)