The Singh twins and their painting Arts Matters: The Pool of Life
Every morning in their spacious house in the Wirral Valley in Liverpool, before they go to work on their canvases, Amrit and Rabindra, the Singh twins, go through a routine which they have practised for as long as they can remember: dress identically.
Its usually whoever gets up first and gets ready. The other one just pulls on the same clothes, laughs Amrit.
The identical twins carefully dress the same — the salwar-kameez coordinated with delicately matching jewellery and dainty shoes. The effect is charming. So how does one tell them apart? Amrit helpfully points out a black beauty spot on her right cheek, while Rabindra smiles. Both clearly enjoy the teasing. They dont reveal their ages as they like to keep people guessing.
The Singh Twins, as the artists have named themselves, paint together, sometimes squatting on the floor on either side of a giant canvas and working out the details. Their contemporary miniatures have earned them huge popularity, Prince Charles has been impressed by their work, and they now have their first solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Probably the only twins in the world who paint together, Amrit and Rabindra are not afraid of pushing the boundaries.
Characters from Indian and British history blend seamlessly in their paintings with contemporary culture and the British Asian experience. A Christmas dinner in a Sikh family with all the trappings goes hand in hand with a portrait of the new King and Queen of Britain — David and Victoria Beckham — sitting on a throne (commissioned for the Commonwealth Games 2002 held in Manchester). Everything is done with the fine detail of miniature paintings.
The journey to the galleries was not easy. While studying contemporary western art at Liverpool University, they were expected to conform to the style of masters like Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin. Nor was the university happy with the fact that the twins seemed to work together and have the same ideas.
They wanted us to ape the western style. But we wanted to draw on our heritage, bring our sensibility to our work and also show that they were relevant to contemporary art, says Amrit.
So we developed our own style. I think we consciously started dressing alike because we wanted to show that there was nothing unnatural in it. It just so happens that both of us want to paint, have the same ideas and are on the same wave length.
It was when the twins were 13 that their father, Karnail Singh, a doctor, decided to take them out of school for a year and take them to India. It was the best education we ever had, says Rabindra, and probably sowed the seeds of their individualism.
Driving around India in a motor-home, the girls were awed by the sheer exuberance and range of Indian art. In Rajasthan, they were attracted to the miniatures and studied them carefully.
When we returned to England, we started to teach ourselves miniature painting. We would blow up photos, see the minute detail and start copying that. We used fine brushes (some with two hairs) and filled in the paintings. It didnt go down well with our tutors, laughs Amrit. The twins were told that miniature paintings were not relevant. The opposition only made them more determined. We felt that on the one hand you are telling us to be creative and on the other hand, you are dictating how we should do this.
They decided they would do it their own way, rebelliously declaring that they were not prepared to conform. An attack on our art form was an attack on our heritage, says Amrit, recalling those early conflicts.
Between 1984-87, while still at university, the twins started producing contemporary miniatures incorporating the reality of their lives and culture. Their canvases captured themes like the extended family, Indian marriages and a celebration of family life within the reality of living in the West. It consciously challenged the monolithic Western view that arranged marriages and joint families were a bad thing. In Nyrmlas Wedding (1985-86) painted in the traditional Raag Mala style, the canvas captures the mehendi ceremony of their cousin with details of the western environment it is taking place in. A toy figure of Batman, a Disney doll, and the figure of Ronald MacDonald smiling over the blushing bride, gives away the period.
By the late Nineties and the turn of the century, the paintings got more political. In Nineteen Eightyfour, the large canvas gives a birds eye view of the storming of the Golden Temple. Here the twins focus not so much on Bhindranwale and the militants, but on the ordinary people and the change it made to their lives. They wanted to tell the story of the innocent pilgrims who were killed. Politicians like Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher appear in the painting along with figures of Sikh gurus who were martyred. There are images of Jallianwala Bagh and Bhagat Singh to show the contribution of the Sikhs to the Indian freedom struggle, along with images of the Indian army marching on the temple.
The twins have been offered big money for the painting by a collector in the US, but they dont want to part with it yet and would rather have it displayed in a public gallery.
Large commissions include that for the Commonwealth Games of 2002 and the painting created to mark Liverpool as the city of European culture, Liverpool 800, displayed at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool. Here, a Bharatnatyam dancer takes her place along with other well known artistes in Liverpool, while Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last ruler of the Punjab, sits in the royal box at the opera. We wanted to show that Liverpool is not just the Beatles and football. It was a port city where the slaves were brought from the colonies. In later years, the immigrants brought a vibrancy to the city, says Amrit.
The Singh twins are currently working on a commission for the London Museum on the Indian Mutiny of 1857. They were given two 19th century paintings on the mutiny — one showing the soldiers going out at Tilbury Docks and the other showing them returning after the war — and asked by the gallery to do a fresh work with their interpretation of the events.
The British heroes were not the Indian heroes. Indian freedom fighters were not the British favourites. Weve also looked at the consequences of the defeat for the Indians. The British ruled for another 100 years. After Independence, the boats came back with Indians to Britain. Today, curry is everywhere, our music, our culture have become part of British life. We are looking at the whole picture, says Amrit.
The Singh Twins runs at the Studio Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery from March 11-June 20.