Her inborn sense of colour, texture and composition combines with her uncanny ability to visualise forms create unexpected masterpieces.
Her inborn sense of colour, texture and composition combines with her uncanny ability to visualise forms create unexpected masterpieces.

Art of expression with her paper trail

With an inborn sense of colour and composition, Shakila depicts the everyday village life of West Bengal

Shakila, the unlikely celebrity, is overjoyed. How a vegetable vendor’s unschooled daughter, who at 12-13 became the second wife of a man in the same trade, creates collages that depict realities—even the grim ones—of her surroundings by just tearing sheets of coloured paper and pasting them onto a supporting surface remains an abiding mystery of India’s art world. She is happy because she travelled all the way from her home in Nore village in South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, for her recent exhibition organised by the Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA) in collaboration with Bihar Museum in Patna. Shakila: Artworks from 1993-2024 showcases 30 of her works.

She is no longer the slender young woman she was at the start of her career. Her eyes reflect deep melancholy, and a wan smile lingers at the corner of her mouth. Shakila seems to live in a detached world of silence even when surrounded by people. In the self-advertising competitive art world of today, this is not expected of a woman who is known globally for her collages; an Indian artist whose careergraph has been on the ascendant entirely on account of her vast output of remarkable collages. The show at Patna was special for her. “I’ve never seen such a wonderful museum. So many objects thousands of years old,” she exclaims with childlike enthusiasm.

Her inborn sense of colour, texture and composition combines with her uncanny ability to visualise forms made with slivers of paper to create unexpected masterpieces. An armed soldier, a red corpse, a woman on a chair with a noose hovering in the air. Depictions of idyllic village life alongside lurking violence—particularly against women—haunt her collages.

 Shakila
Shakila

Shakila’s vision of togetherness takes one by surprise. Alongside skull cap-wearing men and mosques, are Kali and Durga. “In my village people often asked me how a Muslim could depict Shiva and Kali. They are all the same to me,” she says quietly, but with conviction. However, she cannot explain the method behind her creative process. “I don’t make any drawings. I don’t know how the pictures happen while I am pasting bits of paper on canvas or a piece board,” says the 53-year-old.

Shakila’s career owes its rise to her serendipitous meeting with the ascetic Bal Raj Panesar (1927-2014), a statistician and self-taught artist, at the Young Men’s Christian Association hostel in Kolkata, where he lived. Panesar would distribute goodies among local children. Among them was Shakila. Her mother, Jaheran Bibi, would sell vegetables daily at the Taltala market.

After her marriage at 12 to Akbar Sheikh, Panesar took her to view his group exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts. He also took her to the old Society of Contemporary Artists studio in Dharamtalla. He would give the child bride heaps of coloured paper to make bags for her impoverished in-laws to sell. One day, she decided to make pictures using them. Shakila has no knowledge of either Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque who had introduced collage as a part of the Modern Art movement. She made collages since she was too poor to buy brush and paints.

Panesar showed her work to the master Bikash Bhattacharjee. He suggested she use canvas and Fevicol. “Without their encouragement I couldn’t have proceeded. Baba (Panesar, with whom Shakila shared a father-daughter bond) asked me to first make 30-40 pieces. Each one must be different, he said, and make sure you don’t soil them,” recalls Shakila. After holding shows in several galleries, Panesar chose CIMA gallery as Shakila’s platform. Ever since its director, Rakhi Sarkar, has taken the artist under her wing. “Who else but Didi (Sarkar) would oversee details like sending truckloads of my work abroad to places I haven’t heard of?” asks Shakila.

She remembers with delight the Grameen Bank installation she created for the first time showing village women at work for the International Trade Fair, Hanover, Germany in 2000. “We had no electricity and I needed more space to create the installation. A tent was set up and Baba bought me a petromax lantern,” she recalls.

Shakila still doesn’t own a mobile phone, but she has a studio in a double-storeyed building she built in her homestead with an adjoining guava orchard. Still as fragile as paper, the basic material of collage, Shakila is a metaphor for her artform.

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