Kalpana Shah on how she coped after her husband's death in 26/11 attacks

Updated: Nov 18, 2018, 15:59 IST | Jane Borges

Tao Art Gallery founder Kalpana Shah on picking up the pieces after her husband's death in the 26/11 attacks, channelising it into art and a foundation

Kalpana Shah on how she coped after her husband's death in 26/11 attacks
Kalpana Shah's son Sarjan will helm the foundation. Pic/Ashish Raje

Kalpana Shah's calendar for this month is unusually hectic. The founder of Tao Art Gallery is in the thick of two passion projects, which she admits is currently occupying all of her time. When we meet her at her Victorian-style office space in the palatial Sarjan Plaza building, abutting her Worli gallery, she is a few hours away from the premiere of artist Neeraj Goswami's exhibition at Tao.

Minutes before this, the gallerist had been tied up in a meeting to discuss her new foundation. "I think I have too much work on my plate," says Kalpana, finally managing to catch her breath. "But, this is important to me and my kids," she adds of The 26/11 Foundation, which will be launched on the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks, during a memorial evening of classical Hindustani music at the Jamshed Bhabha Auditorium, NCPA.

For Kalpana, the foundation is not just philanthropy, it also has deep sentimental value. Ten years ago, her life unexpectedly came undone when she lost her husband, Pankaj, to the bullets of terrorists, while he was dining with friends at The Oberoi's Kandahar restaurant. "He rarely dined out, and at least, never without me. We'd always prefer calling friends over to our penthouse in Walkeshwar," she remembers. "But that day…," she says, and then halts, unable to hold herself together.

Her son, Sarjan, walks in a few seconds later, and, almost immediately, Kalpana's face lights up. While admitting to having suffered severe bouts of depression, once too many after her husband's tragic demise, she admits that it was her children Sarjan, then 19, and daughter Sanjana, all of 13, who made it possible to help see her through this dark phase. "They are my sunrise," she says.

Sarjan, a Harvard Business School alumnus, who his mother says, shouldered the responsibility of helming his father's real estate business too early on in life as a result of 26/11, had always been interested in "international politics, foreign policy strategic affairs and national security". Incidentally, the 26/11 attacks, "despite being very traumatic on a person level, also revealed the wider systemic problem with our national security", says Sarjan. The new foundation, which is his brainchild, hopes to address this vacuum. "Over the last decade, while studying at various institutions, these issues have been at the forefront of my mind.

I have also been working at developing a wide academic and intellectual network of thinkers, who would help me generate high-quality research concerning national issues related to India," says Sarjan. With technological advancement and India's security matrix changing rapidly, his foundation hopes to create an intellectual power house that would be able to contribute to India's national security, first by working on drafting policy and second, by engaging with the government. Sarjan says the initial idea had been to set-up a foundation to fund support families of security personnel and soldiers killed in action. "But, I realised that would not be the most productive thing to do, because most of the victims are not just supported by the government, but by a range of private efforts. If we are trying to deploy money for a good cause that cause cannot then be of repetitive value to a limited audience," the 29-year-old says.

The mother-son duo believes that it would have been very "counter-productive to have an emotional reaction" to the loss, they faced. This is constructive, says Kalpana, who apart from being a passionate art curator is also a self-taught artist.

It is art, in fact, that helped her make sense of her own grief. "When I lost my husband, a part of me died," she said, choking back her tears. "Until then, I had lived a comfortable life. I had a lovely childhood, happy marriage, and beautiful children. With Pankaj's sudden absence in my life, my confidence had been crushed," she recalls.

The year 2008 was meant to be her breakthrough year as an artist. After years of working and honing her art, she had created her own signature style of knife-work acrylic art on canvas. "I still remember when my husband and daughter Sanjana saw my first work, they were stunned. Pankaj told me, 'Wow! You've made it'," she says. She was to hold her solo show the following year. "But his death came as a huge blow. The void was too big. I had to start from scratch," says Kalpana, who was suddenly forced to get out of her comfort zone, and understand the nuances of business. "My son was still studying, so I had to hold on, for him."

Even on the gallery front, Kalpana says her work took a beating. Her "golden period" was the first eight years after Tao launched in 2000, when she had the backing of the masters - MF Husain and SH Raza to name a few - and support of her husband. "He had absolutely no clue about art, but then he became a big collector. When you are in love, you start loving each other's hobbies," she says, of how her husband warmed up to her interests. Things changed after the recession and her own struggle to go back to the very passion, her husband had helped give flight. "I had become a zero. I felt like somebody had dropped me from Mount Everest," she says, adding that eventually, art proved to be meditative.

"I am still picking up the lost pieces of this puzzle," she says, adding that with her daughter Sanjana taking on as creative director at Tao, and Sarjan, finally following his true interest with the new foundation, life is slowly coming together. "It's very easy to give up and sink into the quick sand of sadness," she says, "But how you walk on the difficult path is what matters."

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