Her success story has all the features of a fairy tale. Till 1990, she had been just a faceless woman struggling to feed her three children. She had no academic qualifications to speak of—being born to poor parents, she had been deprived of education. She was married to a farmer-turned-vegetable vendor and that too at an early age. But Shakila Sheikh was made of sterner stuff. So, despite the odds, with the help of her mentor, Kolkata-based eminent artist BR Panesar, Shakila has become what she is today: an artist who has taken the art world by storm. Asked how she became what she is today, reticent and shy by nature, Shakila says, “It’s Baba (Panesar) who helped me achieve my goal to become a collage artist.” Becoming nostalgic Shakila recalls, “It is probably in 1976 or in 1977 I came into contact with Baba. I was a child then. I would make daily journey from Mograhat to SN Banerjee Road in Kolkata with my mother who used to sell vegetables on the footpath there. Baba, who lived close to this place, used to take an interest in us.” Panesar saw his mother’s face in Shakila and adopted her unofficially as his own daughter. Panesar talked to her mother and got her admitted to school near Sealdah, Kolkata. But unfortunately, her family took her out of the school just after a couple of months and married her off at an early age.
When Panesar came to know about this, he was terribly shocked. Nevertheless, he, once again, came to Shakila’s rescue. Providing financial support apart, Panesar would send her old copies of newspapers and magazines through her husband Akbar Sheikh so that Shakila could make paper bags to augment her family’s poor income. But destiny had another course for her! She began to try her hands at collages while making paper bags. When Shakila showed her work to Panesar, he became spellbound. “Almost all of my artist friends were so impressed that they asked me to arrange a solo exhibition of my daughter’s work,” recalls Panesar with pride.
An enthusiastic Panesar selected some of Shakila’s works and arranged for a show at the Birla Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata. More exhibitions followed. There were invitations from across the country and abroad. Her works had been displayed at the National Exhibition held by the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, and at the best known galleries of India, Paris, New York, Hanover and Singapore. Since then there has been no looking back.