Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : August 3rd 2014 Contents | PROFILES |
IN THE VILLAGE OF CHANDERNAGORE, North
Couva, lies a remnant of a former sugarcane estate
that was owned by Seereeram Maharaj Panday, who
came to Trinidad as an indentured labourer when he
was just a boy.
On September 15, 1891 7-year-old Panday, accompa-
nied by his mother and brother, left his village in India
and set off on the Pal Lahaj from the seaport of Fyz-
abad. He spent three months at sea, on a treacherous
journey that claimed the lives of twenty-nine other In-
dians, and landed on Nelson Island January 1st, 1892.
They went on to work on the sugarcane fields of
Woodford Lodge Estate, but after his indentureship,
Panday remained in Trinidad and married, eventually fa-
thering 11 children, and bought his first tractor in 1933.
By the time he died in 1943, his own sugarcane estate
has grown to sixty acres. Today his granddaughter,
artist Shalini Seereeram, daughter of Panday's
youngest son Rajendra, lives on what is left of the es-
tate, and her pride in her heritage is displayed in her
Seereeram and her family used to live in Chaguanas,
above the supermarket they owned. One night, when
she was nine, she awoke to the smell of smoke. A
surge in electrical current due to an outage earlier that
day caused sparks to fly from the aging air-condition-
ing unit in the storage area, igniting its combustible
The family escaped and stood watching the fire, wait-
ing for the Fire Service that was literally within walking
distance. Fate, however, would deal them a harsh blow.
When the hoses were turned on, not a drop came out.
What started off as an easily controllable fire turned in-
stead into a greedy inferno that consumed everything
the family owned as they looked on in helpless shock.
Shalini's dad tried to re-build from the ashes, but when
they were also hit by a recession the following year, he
was never able to recover, financially or spiritually. They
went from a middle class life to surviving just above
the poverty line almost overnight. The family moved
into the old storage house on the estate and he worked
in the fields while her mother found a job outside. Al-
though he gradually re-built that storage house into a
beautiful and gracious home for his family, her father's
spirit remained broken. When cane farming was aban-
doned in 2000, the estate had to be gradually sold off
and his health went into serious decline. He's now in a
very advanced stage of Alzheimer's, and Shalini refuses
to leave his side, choosing to remain at home to help
look after him, as both her sister and brother have
moved on to marriages and families of their own.
Shalini's work is distinctive, down to the discarded ma-
terials she uses in her mixed media pieces, but most
people don't know that it stemmed more from neces-
sity rather than pure imagination. Even her studio, now
her own little exotic 'cave' where her inspiration and
creativity flows freely, was once the kennel that housed
her grandfather's hunting dogs.
Her parents could not accept her desire to be an artist...
they didn't consider it a 'real' profession. So when the
family could only afford to give one sister the opportu-
nity to go abroad to study, it went to her younger sister,
and Shalini settled for studying Graphic Art at John
Donaldson Technical Institute. It was while working at
McCann Erickson that she first began to dabble in
painting, although at the time she couldn't afford real
paints and canvasses. In those early days her paints
were $3 nail polishes and her canvasses were discarded
presentation boards. She would create little works of
art, which she gave away to whomever wanted them.
It was a colleague who gave her her first commission ---
$250 for a painting as a gift for a friend.
Even though her work now sells for thousands of dol-
lars, she admits to still being a "paint hoarder" some-
times... the stuff had become more precious than gold
since she was able to afford real paint.
It was in 1999, when she was doing her first piece for
an exhibition and realized that she couldn't afford fram-
ing, that she hit upon the idea of using an old window
frame instead. It turned out to be divine inspiration...
the piece sold instantly. The old frames, as well as
other bits of discarded furniture, still feature very
By Helen Shair-Singh
strongly in her work and she still forages the country for them,
just as she used to when she couldn't afford better. In 2000,
when she had her first show, all the pieces were created using
nail polish and recycled paper.
Although Shalini is now one of this country's most accomplished
and respected artists, her parents --- though always supportive
--- have yet to truly acknowledge her brilliant success, and with
her father's declining mental faculties she may never have that.
But where you might find other artists expressing their angst in
their work, Shalini seems like the exact opposite ... almost an ob-
stinate refusal to allow her art to imitate her life. Her pieces are
vibrantly alive and passionate, and exude the utmost reverence
for her traditional Hindu and Muslim heritage. Her signature
theme is raw sensuality --- whether by a passionate embrace, or
lascivious curve of a breast, or a nipple showing through a sheer
choli --- wrapped up in the rich, lustrous, jewelled tones of East
Her 14-year-old niece, with the sage innocence of youth, once
told her "artists are children who have never grown up". It's the
truth, in a way, for Shalini... she still craves the approval of her
parents, but, like Peter Pan, her imagination, instead of dwelling
on 'why', soars in the land of 'why NOT'.
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