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Sheila Weiner, Buddhist Art Historian

Sheila Weiner was an art historian who specialised in Buddhist Art. She and her husband, political scientist, Myron Weiner, lived in India at various times in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Her book Ajanta: Its Place in Buddhist Art contextualises Ajanta as a site of development of Buddhist thought.


Reflections on My Grandmother

Sheila Weiner (1930 – 2015)

“This isn’t what I’d imagined you doing.”


Grandma said this to me before she passed and I think about it a lot. At the time, I was working in marketing for a tech company in Chicago trying to make money so that I could return to India. I’m now back in India.


A lot of people have written about my grandfather. Grandpa was a prolific scholar. When I read his writings -like The Child and the State in India – I scour them looking for hints that we thought similarly, that we analyzed the world the same way. I was eight when Grandpa passed and I hardly remember him; mostly I remember how he used to mock groan when he lifted me onto his lap, as if I was so heavy. Also, he held my hand on that plane ride to California during take off, when I was scared.

There’s not very much written about Grandma. In his (unfinished) autobiography, which he started shortly after his diagnosis, Grandpa wrote, “I used to say that I married Sheila because she was a wonderful editor, and that good editors are hard to find and hard to keep. To tell the truth, though not all of it, I fell for her because she had and still has a wonderful smile.”

Sheila Weiner and husband Myron Weiner sitting at Jantar Mantar

Sheila and Myron Weiner at Jantar Mantar New Delhi in the 1950s

There was a lot to Grandma. She was an expert in Buddhist art; she wrote a book on Ajanta. When we went to museums I could wander the whole museum, come back and she would still be at the same piece. She was resilient: when she was rejected from a PhD program because, she was told, mothers shouldn’t pursue PhDs, she challenged that and completed her PhD from Harvard anyway in 1970. She was a crisp writer. She was a fierce critic. She was an impeccable dresser.


I spent my teenage summers with Grandma. It was the first time in my life that I was exposed to things completely different from the insular community I was raised in. I was introduced to new people, new ideas, new food. At night, she would tell me stories about her and Grandpa in India – about how they learned Hindi on the boat they took over from London in 1953, about the time they drove from Delhi to Mumbai on a motorcycle in the 1950s, about the time Alan Ginsburg was at a party with them in Kolkata in the 1960s.


The first time I went to India was 2004. I turned fourteen there. Grandma decided she wanted to visit old friends one more time. She took my sister and me with her. Shortly after we landed in Delhi, Grandma, who had been a chronic smoker until her fifties, developed bronchitis. Our plans to visit Jaipur, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Kolkata were canceled and we moved in with friends. I remember Grandma being disappointed, saying she had wanted us to see many different places. “Don’t worry, Grandma,” I said, “we’re just dipping our toes this round, next time we’ll go swimming.” I remember my sister, Miriam, laughed at that.


I had a great time for the rest of the trip. We spent pleasant winter days in the garden drinking chai, I climbed into the dog’s bed, an Indie named Biba, and sang to her, followed Auntie around while she did chores all the while chattering at her and accompanied her on food shopping trips.

I’m in my late twenties now and I think about Grandma a lot. I wonder what she would think about what’s happening in the world. I cling fiercely to the things that belonged to her: the gold bangles Grandpa brought for her, a silk dupatta in my closet, the dress from Nepal that no longer fits me. I want her to think I’m working hard. I want her be proud of me.

Tali Datskovsky spent her childhood summers with her grandmother, Sheila Weiner, who encouraged her interest in South Asia. She currently lives and works in Delhi. She can be reached by email at ADatskovsky91@gmail.com.

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