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.
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.