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January 05, 2017

The Singh Twins Take Us Through Their Intricate Canvases

Text by Huzan Tata. All artwork images copyright: The Singh Twins; www.singhtwins.co.uk

They’ve made a career out of painting miniatures that explore themes of history, culture and identity

Two British siblings of Indian descent travel across continents in a home-made caravan. They enter the nation of their ancestors from the Wagah border in Pakistan, and slowly experience its vast culture first-hand — an odyssey that changes their lives forever. This isn’t the plot of a Hindi film, but the true story of Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, known to the world as the Singh Twins.

Born in London and having lived in Liverpool since their childhood, the sisters were first exposed to Indian miniatures on this journey that they took as teenagers. The experience was a “turning point” in their lives, and they chose to make a career out of the form. “That trip was quite an adventure. It showed us the richness and beauty of Indian culture in all its diversity, as we spent one year travelling around the country, visiting cities, villages, towns, historical and religious sites, museums and galleries. It deepened our sense of identity and pride in India. We were disappointed to see how contemporary art seemed to be neglecting tradition in favour of modern and Western role models. This motivated our desire to make the style relevant for current audiences through our own work,” say the pair.

Born into a large Sikh family, the duo grew up with traditional customs, values, and a proper convent education. Their decision to take up miniatures was reinforced during their days at university, where their preferred style was met with negativity. They remained determined, however, seeing it as a means to counter this cultural prejudice against Indian art. “Our continued development of the style could provide a way of highlighting and redressing this — rather than bowing to the dictates of our tutors who wanted us to look to the West instead,” they explain.

Most twins do things together, and these sisters often paint a single canvas in unison. While they take turns to do the research and administration, the drawing, digital sketching and final painting are sometimes done side by side or “head to head”, as they term it. “Generally, we trust each other’s ability and judgment, although occasionally we change parts of the work while the other isn’t looking. But we normally get caught!”

They have had several international exhibitions the world over, the most recent being a retrospective of their work at Canada’s Peel Art Gallery Museum + Archives in March as part of the country’s Sikh Heritage Month programmes. They’ve brought their canvases to Indian shores as well — they were the first British artists to display at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) since Henry Moore. Their creations were also the inspiration behind Tarun Tahiliani’s Spring/Summer ’15 collection.

“The paintings we saw during our first trip to India really captivated us — especially those from the imperial Mughal period which we consider to be the renaissance of Indian art. The exquisite detail and technical brilliance was just breathtaking…. We would say that the USP of miniatures is the rich symbolic language, technical skill, decorative beauty and narrative content — all of which are a rarity in modern art today.” So intricate and time-consuming is their work that the siblings have a two-year waiting list on commissions.

And though it may be hard to pick, surely the artists must have a favourite creation of their own? “Our most special painting is titled Nineteen Eighty-Four (which depicts the Indian army’s attack on the Golden Temple in 1984) because it has allowed us to inform audiences about another side of what remains as one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood events in modern history. It champions the plight of everyday people caught up in politics and demonstrates the importance of art as social and political commentary.” While their aim is to educate and provoke viewers about the issues they bring out with their brushes, they are equally happy when their works are seen from a purely aesthetic point of view. “We hope they appreciate the decorative and technical qualities and take away a much broader understanding of the diversity of British contemporary art practice.”

In a career spanning several decades, the Singh Twins have accumulated an impressive list of accolades. Last year, they were featured on BBC’s The Face of Britain, a TV show exploring the history of British portraiture and, more recently, the Royal Academy of Arts in London exhibited their work. But their proudest achievements remain being awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for ‘services to the Indian miniature tradition of contemporary art’, and working with Tarun Tahiliani. The twosome is still aiming for greater heights, including a Singh Twins label of high-end home furnishing and fashion accessories. “Despite all the recognition and success we have achieved, we feel there is still a glass ceiling in terms of how contemporary art is defined and evaluated from a narrow and Eurocentric perspective. And we are determined to break through the barrier!”

In their free time, the sisters enjoy “chilling out” with family and friends over dinner, good conversation, watching films, playing the flute and piano, and visiting museums, galleries and the theatre. While they’re still powered by new challenges on the work front, it’s their creative oeuvre that they ultimately wish the world to know them for; their paintings encourage thought and debate on the topics they illustrate. “We hope we will be remembered for achieving recognition within the contemporary art scene on our own terms, and for pioneering a unique genre that has had a positive impact on people’s lives, succeeded against all odds, and has made a difference to the way people view contemporary art.”

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