Shakila Sheikh, who used to live on the pavements of Kolkata, is today a globally known artist whose collages adorn several galleries

She might be from an unknown village in West Bengal, but her art is well-known in galleries across India and those in Paris, Germany, New York and Norway. Apparently avant garde designer Pierre Cardin too possesses one of her works. Shakila Sheikh’s uncertain journey that started on the dusty pavements of Kolkata, is a phenomenal and inspiring story for many.

Born into a poor family, Shakila had little or no education. Artist and philanthropist B.R. Panesar spotted her on the pavements and arranged for her education in a government school. She was 12 then. But her mother felt it was unsafe to raise her young daughter on the streets and got her married to a vegetable vendor. A couple of years later, Shakila approached Panesar for a job. He got her into making thonga (paper bags). Little did anyone know that Shakila would soon find her calling in art. “Around that time I had gone to an exhibition where pictures made of coloured papers were displayed. That gave me the idea. I asked my husband to get me a cardboard and some coloured paper so I could start making collages. But he laughed at me. After I created my first collage he looked pleased and has been supportive ever since,” says the soft-spoken artist.

When Panesar and other renowned artists in Kolkata saw Shakila’s work they were impressed and convinced that she was a child prodigy. They encouraged her and in 1991 she displayed her collage at an exhibition for the first time. This was also the first time she had a bank balance! With more exhibitions and shows she even bought a house and a studio.

“It was a little difficult in the beginning. My children were small and had to be looked after during the day. The village had no electricity and I had to work under the light of the lamp,” she says. Of her three children only her younger son (18) has taken up this art.

Shakila draws inspiration from what she sees around her and her first work comprised pictures of tomatoes, chillies and heaps of other vegetables. “I also do a lot of collages of Kali, Durga and on women’s issues. Besides all the appreciation, I also sadly get some hate mails for my depiction of goddesses.” Unperturbed, this self-taught artist soldiers on.

Unlike her vibrant collages, Shakila is shy and a woman of few words. But underneath her calm demeanour, she has a sense of humour that comes through in some of her creations. Her moods and emotions reflect in her work. Taking very little credit for her efforts, she attributes her success to Panesar and CIMA(Centre of International Modern Art, Kolkata) and is grateful for their support.

Shakila, in her early forties now, spends much of her time creating collages of various sizes. “The biggest one measures about 14 feet x 12 feet. It’s a challenge shipping big pieces of art to other countries,” she adds. And what is she working on next? “I have a few ideas. After making a piece I am always stressed out wondering how it’s come out. Once the galleries take a look at it and give me their feedback I feel relaxed,” she laughs.