Category Archives: culture



The etching Panesar took off a gallery wall and gave me.

A headline in my hometown newspaper brought me to tears this morning. B.P. Panesar had died.

He was a renowned artist. Water color. Oil. Etchings. He was also made a name as mentor to Shakila, a poor village woman who gained fame for her collages.

He gave away his earnings as an artist to charity. He never married and lived for many years in one room at the YMCA in central Kolkata. He died in an old people’s home, still holding paint and brush.


Uncle Panesar and me when I was about a year old.

I knew him as Uncle Panesar. My father taught at the Indian Statistical Institute, where Panesar worked, and from the instant they met, they became fast friends. My father became an advcate for Panesar’s art. In time, he became a part of our family, especially in the years we spent living on campus in north Kolkata.

He loved to listen to my mother sing Rabindrasangeet and spend hours with my brother and me.

He held me as a baby, played with me when I was a child, encouraged me to paint as a teenager and inspired my creativity as an adult.

From early on, I found Uncle Panesar to be a calming force in my life. I’d peer into his eyes, under his thick bushy eyebrows and try to imagine what was swirling inside his head. What genius, I thought, to be able to produce such visual feasts.

I was especially enamored with Panesar’s collages made with magazine and newspaper cuttings, old pictures, bus tickets and other things people tossed in the trash. Panesar gave up his own collages to train Shakila. He was so taken with her talent. I was sorry at first until I went to visit Shakila and saw for the first time the mastery within that Panesar had helped awakened.

In the late 1980s, I visited Uncle Panesar at the Y. He had moved onto etchings by then and showed me his small studio. He invited me to go see his show at the Birla Academy. I was so taken with an etching of Mother Teresa — I’d volunteered at one of her organizations many years before — that when his show was over, Uncle Panesar took it off the gallery wall and presented it to me. It hangs by my dresser. I look at it as I begin each day. And think of all the good in the world.

I had hoped to see you in a few days in Kolkata. But you did not wait. You have flown away to a better place.

I will miss you, Uncle Panesar. Always.

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durgaLove that we celebrate strength in a form of a woman. If only all women in India held such lofty status. Happy Durga Puja, everyone. 

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Purse paradise

Many years ago, I walked through the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, mesmerized that the history of mankind could be told through footwear — from caveman to Christian Laboutin. I was fascinated, given my penchant for shoes. (Yes, I have way too many.)

So when I stumbled upon the Tassen Museum Hendrikje in Amsterdam recently, I had to go in. Housed in a beautiful old building on Herengracht, the museum pays homage to, what else, handbags. It’s not as extensive as the shoe museum but tells a 500-year-history of handbags and purses in the Western world. Through bags, you get a good idea of how social norms changed for women.

And the museum shop is terrific if you are in the market for a good bag.

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Goldless again

Used to be the Olympics mirrored the Cold War – a head-to-head battle for medals between the United States and The Soviet Union.
Now, it’s between the USA and China. In London, American might won out with 104 medals versus China’s 84.
I suppose the Olympic medal counts give you a good idea of which nations are world powers. The United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, France…Brazil is up there in the top 20. But, um, where is my homeland?

Keep looking down the list. Keep going. Down, down, down. There, just below Croatia is India with six medals – none gold.

Saina Nehwal

So why is the world’s largest democracy and the second most populous nation unable to win? Can India not do better than six medals with its 1.2 billion people?

Please don’t think that Indians don’t make good athletes. They have shown they can win big in sports like cricket and hockey.

Perhaps the dearth of medals can be explained by a lack of state-run athletics programs in the vein of China’s or those of the former USSR. Half of India’s population still lives in abject poverty. They cannot afford to send children to expensive training camps on their own.

But what about India’s new middle class who now have disposable income or those who have accumulated enormous wealth in the last two decades?  
Here’s where I think the culture comes in. Indian parents are way too preoccupied with education. Every parent’s dream is to see his or her child come first in class and get into one of the best colleges in the land.
There is no time for sports. Not serious sports, anyway.
And even if there were, it’s too much of a gamble.
What if little Rita spent her entire life perfecting the art of balancing on a 4-inch beam and then fell under the Olympic spotlight? What would she be left with?
American kids still have a life, they still are able to go to college. But for Rita, the opportunities do not exist unless she is a star student. There’s just way too much competition for slots in schools – too many people, not enough facilities.
Abhijit Kunte, a chess grandmaster who runs a nonprofit to help groom athletes, told the New York Times that it should fall to Indian schools to inspire and train boys and girls. He suggested Indian schools follow the U.S. model.
But the Times reported that the Indian government did not spend a single rupee in the last two years on the promotion of sports in schools and colleges.
Sad, because champion athletes are admired in India. The best in their fields climb to superhero status — starting with the giants of cricket like Sachin Tendulkar down to Saina Nehwal, who won a bronze in badminton in London.

But I suspect many parents think like mine did. They prefer that their children graduate suma cum laude from college than come first in the 200-meter freestyle.

Well, perhaps at least until they are on the stand with gold around their neck. 

Here’s to Rio.


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