Born in abject poverty, Shakila Sheikh was married to her husband at a young age of 12. From being a wife of a vegetable seller to a globally acclaimed artist, Shakila’s life journey is an inspiration.
Born in 1973, Shakila was the youngest of six siblings. While talking about her tough childhood, she spoke to The Weekend Leader,
“I was just a year old when my father left us and went to Bangladesh. I never saw him again. My mother, Zaheran Bibi, took care of us and sold vegetables in Kolkata to make ends meet.”
Sharing details about her difficult days, Shakila talked about how family slipped into utter poverty. There were days when the family had to sleep empty stomach. With a meager income and too many mouths to feed, her mother left no stone unturned in fighting her circumstances. While sharing how her mother struggled like a true warrior she mentioned:
“Mother used to travel from our house in Mograhat to Kolkata (about 40 km) to sell vegetables. She had no time to think of anything else. We couldn’t study due to financial constraints.”
At 7, Shakila started accompanying her mother to the vegetable market. But her mother never allowed her to work.
“She didn’t allow me to work but used to take me to the city for a tour. I loved seeing trams and buses plying through the roads and slept on the pavements while she worked,”
Then Shakila met an angel on these streets, who changed her life forever
A retired government employee and a passionate painter, Baldev Raj Panesar who used to frequently go to streets where Shakila and Zaheran Bibi sold vegetables. Every day he would buy pencils, magazines, eggs, and chocolates and distribute them among underprivileged kids. He was so loved by the kids that he got a nickname – ‘Dimbabu’ —’dim’ is egg in Bengali.
Though all the kids would run to Dimbabu for gifts, Shakila refused to. While remembering the details, Shakila told the Live Mint:
“I’d never accepted anything from a stranger, so I did not take anything from him. 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.”
Recalling how Baba aka Dimbabu changed her life, Shakila mentioned:
“A chance meeting with him changed our lives…He not only got me into a school but also provided some financial support to the family. Initially, my mother was apprehensive and thought that Baba might traffic her daughter but was later convinced about his integrity.”
Baba got Shakila admitted to a Kolkata school to secure her future. But destiny had different plans for her.
Shakila’s mother never wanted to raise her child on the streets. Helpless, she got 12-year-old Shakila married to Akbar Sheikh, a man who was 15 years older to her. Shakila was his second wife. Recalling her financial struggle, Shakila added:
“He used to travel to Kolkata to sell vegetables, but his income was not enough to look after his two wives…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. While sharing the details, Akbar mentioned:
“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.”
He further added:
“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!”
This exhibition opened new doors for Shakila. Shakila insisted that Akbar gets her cardboard sheets and colored paper as paints were expensive. So, she started her artwork —a depiction of vegetables and fruits that stunned not only Akbar but Baba and his fellow artists too!
Post this, Baba, along with his friends started giving Shakila cardboard sheets, newspapers, and magazines to make more collages. By then Shakila also developed various artwork – from vegetables to Goddesses to domestic violence.
As Shakila received more and more encouragement from Baba and other art enthusiasts, she refused to give up. In 1990, she set her first-ever exhibition. From this exhibition, Shakila earned Rs 70,000!
From then on, Shakila has come a long way. Today, she has hired professionals who manage the sales of Shakila’s art. It is inspiring how her various pieces of artwork adorn houses in various parts of the world including India, Europe, and the USA!
Shakila has received various awards, including the 2005 Charukala Award from the Academy of Dance, Music and Visual Art in West Bengal, and a Lalit Kala Akademi felicitation in 2003. She attributes her success entirely to Panesar, who sadly passed away in 2014.
At IFORHER, we are in awe of Shakila and her inspiring journey from a wife of a vegetable seller to a globally acclaimed artist. We hope her inspiring story would give inspiration to many, who are struggling with their life circumstances to create a life of their dreams!