Shakila Sheikh, who usually just goes by her first name, is sweeping the entrance to her house, one of the few two-storeyed pucca buildings in the tiny village of Noorgram, near Baruipur, when we reach. Head covered by the end of her sari, she moves lithely, fussing over us, bringing out chairs, offering us refreshments, and murmuring about whether she ought to change into a nicer outfit.
A couple of hours’ drive from the city of Kolkata, Baruipur is a bustling municipality in the district of South 24 Parganas, West Bengal. As you move further away from the squalid town centre, past the narrow strip of arterial road festooned with bright flags of political parties, and into the once-pristine countryside now tarnished by ugly concrete structures, the din of suburban life recedes, and a hush descends.
Miles of guava orchards heavy with fruit, perhaps Baruipur’s chief claim to fame, usher you into sleepy Noorgram.
It is late afternoon, in the month of Ramzan. The azaan (call to prayer) wafts in from the distance. Men in their Sunday best make their way to the neighbouring mosque, casting curious glances at us, as we are greeted by Shakila and her husband, Akbar Sheikh.
It’s also mid-July, the eve of the panchayat polls, and the air is tense after yet another episode of violence that had erupted the night before. Once a stronghold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the area is now ruled by the cadres of the Trinamool Congress, who are accused by some locals of running a reign of terror.
Noorgram may be a nondescript speck on the map of India, but it holds a veritable star on the map of international art: Shakila, who has been living there with her husband and three children for nearly 30 years.
Shakila’s story is not simply one of her rise from penury to prominence due to her breathtaking talent as an artist, but also of her unshaken resilience while facing the world of circumstances.
In Shakila’s case, the remarkable intersection of gender, education and creativity complicates any attempt at reducing her life to a neat set of formulations, endorsing any one kind of politics. She has never heard of feminism but knows what oppression is. She has the gift of art but not any conventional education. Her reputation has changed the fortunes of her family, but she remains a humble, retiring homemaker. Shakila’s story is among those that exist between heaven and earth, one of those tales that can’t be dreamt of in any philosophy.
Born circa 1969—Shakila is not sure what her exact age is—she is by far one of the finest, though relatively unsung, artists in the country, known for her singular talent for collage and works with paper. Scenes from provincial life fill up her canvases, which can be as cosy as a miniature painting or staggering enough to cover a full wall.
Tearing bits of newspapers, magazines, film posters and play bills by hand—Shakila never uses scissors—she creates montages, mostly depicting the lived realities of men and women of her milieu. A solitary girl child, abandoned by her mother, floats in a sea of green mulch; goddess Kali appears in all her gruesome glory; while Durga assumes the benign aspect of a mother.
Over the years, portability has given way to massive canvases—one of which shows a peeing Ganesh—and larger-than-life installations that diffuse the boundaries between the real and the imagined, possible and impossible.
Now represented by the Centre of International Modern Art (Cima) gallery of Kolkata, Shakila’s work has travelled to the distant corners of the country as well as of the world—France, Germany, Norway—and inspired as much acclaim as awe among beholders. Shakila herself has only ever travelled to Delhi to accept the Sanskriti Award (2000), apart from sporadic journeys to Kolkata.
“Shakila’s story has a Pygmalion quality to it,” writes Kolkata-based art critic Rita Datta in an essay about her, “as though it’s all make-believe, a feel-good fable out of popular cinema.” The journey from the local vegetable market to the global art market might sound like a fairy-tale, but the reality is not all sweetness and light.
“Do you want to know just about my work? Or should I begin from the beginning?” Shakila says, when I ask her to tell me her story. She starts speaking slowly but surely, with what seems like a practised ease but loses the thread of her narrative frequently. It must have grown on her through repeated telling, but the feelings and memories stirred by it seem to affect her still. Her eyes fill up when she speaks of her mentor, B.R. Panesar, maverick artist and statistician.
Now ailing and in his 80s, Panesar, who Shakila calls “Baba”, discovered her when she was six- or seven-years old. “We were very poor,” Shakila says, softly. “I used to sell vegetables at the Taltala market (in Kolkata) with my mother.”
There she would often find a middle-aged gentleman giving eggs, biscuits and toffees to children in the neighbourhood. “I’d never accept anything from a stranger, so I wouldn’t take whatever he offered me,” Shakila says. “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 she studied for a few years, it was difficult for a young girl from her background to go to the city every day from the village of Mograhat, in South 24 Parganas, where her folks lived, to attend classes. “I managed to learn some Bengali,” Shakila says. “Then, when I was 12, my mother married me off to him (her husband) without Baba’s knowledge.”
In conversation with others, Shakila refers to her husband in the third-person singular, keeping him at a respectable distance, but also making him appear, perhaps without meaning to, like just another character in the story of her life.
As Shakila speaks, Akbar quietly goes about arranging plates of food before us. The family may be observing the ritual fast but guests cannot be neglected.
Although I am aware, from my interactions with those who know Shakila, that she is Akbar’s second wife, she does not mention it herself. “I went to see Baba a few years after my marriage,” she continues, looking down, “and asked him if there was anything I could do to earn some money. He suggested I make thongas (paper packets) and sell them.”
While folding scrap paper into shapes, Shakila remembers being struck by the intense colours. “I was good at drawing when I was young,” she says. “Baba used to give me drawing books and pens to sketch. I made two pictures that were printed in newspapers he had sent them to.” One showed a boy dragging a cow on a leash and the other had someone playing the flute. “Then, one day, Baba asked me, ‘Do you want to come see my exhibition?’ So I went.”
That visit to the gallery proved to be a turning point in her life. Shakila spent hours looking at each work in great detail. When Panesar asked her to point out the ones she had liked, she named a few. “Baba approved of my selection,” she recalls. “He said I have a good eye for art.”
“On my way home, on the train, I kept thinking of the paintings,” she continues. “Then I thought I could perhaps try making something with bits of coloured paper, since paint is expensive and I didn’t have the money for it.” When she told her husband of her idea and asked him to get her a “piece board” from Panesar, he laughed at her, making her angry and even more determined to make what she wanted.
When she finally made her first work in her late teens—two still-life images showing simple arrangements of vegetables and fruits—Panesar and his fellow artists were overwhelmed. Soon, they started giving her canvases and magazines and newspapers from which she could get raw materials. They encouraged her to carry on making collages, and organized her first solo in the early 1990s at the Chitrakoot Art Gallery in Kolkata.
“Since then Shakila’s work has evolved tremendously,” says Rakhi Sarkar, director of Cima, which now promotes her art. “It has grown complex and become much darker.”
Sarkar, who Shakila calls Didi (elder sister), has been instrumental in sending her work out into the world. “A few years ago, the International Trade Fair in Hannover commissioned her to make work around Grameen Bank and microfinance,” she says. “Shakila exceeded our expectations and created not just staggeringly large collages but also life-size figures with papier mâché.”
In these unforgettable works, women are seen selling groceries, weaving the loom, or speaking to their sons on cellphones. But perhaps the most moving among Shakila’s installations is Ghuter Deyal, literally a stark wall encrusted with cow-dung cakes by a woman who stands with her back to the visitors in the gallery. There is something lonesome and incredibly melancholic about her, absorbed as she is in her humble chore.
The work is emblematic of Shakila’s own position within the art world. Working outside the tradition, with practically no education or training, save for the incremental benefits of having occasionally looked at other people’s art, Shakila is naturally indifferent to the achievements of high modernism. “Baba told me never to copy an image,” she says, “I can only make pictures out of my imagination.”
Shakila’s contemporary, artist Sumitro Basak, who was trained at Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, notes Panesar’s influence on Shakila’s style. “There is a palpable affinity between some of their collages,” says Basak. “But Shakila’s imagery and symbolism are informed by the unique way she responds to popular culture with her natural intelligence.”
Although domestic violence or political killings appear in her work from time to time, she refuses to explain how or why that happens. “I can never explain what they mean,” she says apologetically, “I watch a bit of TV, yes—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.”
Increasingly, and especially since the police atrocities on agitating farmers in the village of Nandigram in 2007, Shakila’s work has become more inward-looking. There are also some gestures towards abstraction, though figures and landscape still dominate her imagery. The figure of a man feeding birds—a nod to Panesar, who used to be a compulsive feeder of pigeons—is a recurring motif. But the most striking aspect of her work is how often it grows out of body parts—navel, eyes, skin, breasts—ripped out of glossy magazines and tacky posters and reassembled to create scenarios that are a world apart from the urban glitz. those primary sources represent.
Sarkar says around 500 people visit the gallery each day when Shakila’s solo shows are on, plying her with questions that can never be answered convincingly. “How does one account for a prodigy like her?” she says. “I don’t have an explanation. Although I help curate her work, she is very much her own person. No one can ever force her to do anything against her wishes.” Yet, in spite of all the praise and the prices her works fetch (selling between Rs.25,000 and Rs.2.5 lakh), Shakila has never entirely been rid of self-doubt.
When she started making images of Hindu deities, her conservative Muslim neighbours were furious. “They said I had become Christian. But I never stopped. I must go on making what I must. People still come by, stand and watch when I am working, but are less critical.” Her husband, she says, has been a pillar of support, in spite of his two marriages and sporadic episodes of misdemeanour, encouraging her to carry on, minding the children while she worked, and even hunting for the right colours she had been looking for among piles of old and discarded papers. In her community, a spouse like Akbar is an exception.
Shakila’s “studio” is a small room in front of her house, cluttered with pulpy Bengali film posters. Stacks of canvases rest against the wall. A bunch of joss-sticks smoulder away in a corner.
When she lived in a mud hut, her husband built a shed outside the house, where she went to work every night, after her two sons and a daughter had gone to bed. She would work by the dim glow of an oil lamp, into the wee hours. “Now my daughter is married, the sons have grown up. I sit down to work whenever I can, as and when the urge seizes me,” she says. These days she is about to begin a new piece—there is only a murky dark green background now—but she doesn’t know what it will be about.
Her favourites among her own work are the images of Kali. “When I tear the paper, I feel as if Kali has come to me,” she says. “I feel both sad and happy when I hear someone has bought my work. Sad because I will never be able to see it again—I don’t have a camera to take a photo of it and keep it with me—and happy because it has been liked by someone.”