British painters Amrit and Rabindra prefer to be called the Singh Twins. They dress identically, and while most of their works are collaborations, they sign even individually created pieces as a duo – just one of the many ways in which the sisters like to challenge “Western concepts of individuality.”
They are artists in the Indian miniature tradition – a form known for intricate pieces that vary in scale and depict historical scenes of court life or warfare. But the details of their works are often contemporary. For instance, in Nyrmala’s Wedding II, the scene of their sister’s wedding ceremony seems traditional enough – until you notice a videographer capturing the moment and Ronald McDonald peering in through the window. They like to call their oeuvre past-modern.
On Saturday, they will be in Toronto to unveil one of their latest works, Sikhs in Canada, a painting commissioned for the Royal Ontario Museum’s permanent collection.
“One of the things I have tried to do at the ROM, and its South Asian gallery, is present South Asia as a vibrant contemporary culture – not just a place of historical artifacts,” says Deepali Dewan, the museum’s curator of South Asian visual culture. “And the South Asian diaspora is a big part of the story. ... In terms of that perspective, the Sikh community is one of the oldest diasporic communities in Canada, going back to the late 19th century.
“We have another piece by the Singh Twins in our collection [ The Finishing Touch, acquired in 2006] which shows the Sikh diasporic experience in the U.K. The logical next step was to get them to think about the diasporic community in Canada.”
While the Singh Twins consider their body of work a political statement, there are the occasional concessions they are willing to make. In Sikhs in Canada, for instance, the CN Tower stands amid depictions of the Sikh RCMP officer, the first Sikh Saskatchewan Roughrider and the defunct pop group Punjabi by Nature – as per the ROM’s guideline to include the structure as a reflection of “a major Canadian landmark.”
When pointed out in a Skype conversation from their home in Liverpool that many Canadians might consider the CN Tower an eyesore, they laugh. “Unfortunately, it is an icon of the city, whether you like it or not.”
The Singh Twins discovered Indian miniatures during a 1980 visit to India, when they were just 13. The family embarked on what was supposed to be a month-long road trip, passing through 12 countries, including Iran and Iraq – then at the brink of war. They ended up crisscrossing India for nine months.
“For us, although we realized we come from an Indian family, we [had grown up]culturally very isolated,” the sisters say. “We were bowled over by the richness of the culture.”
When they came across examples of Indian miniatures in New Delhi’s National Museum, it was a life-changing moment. Struck by the craftsmanship, they returned to England with a book on the form. “It became our bible, if you like,” they say.
They pored over the book, learning the technique by copying the reproductions. Later, the Victoria and Albert Museum allowed them to photograph works in its collection. They blew up the photos to study how the brush strokes were laid down and texture was built up.
Although they did not set out to be artists, and considered art a hobby, they enrolled in a comparative Western art course in university.
However, their instructors weren’t quite as enamoured of their art form. “We were told our [Indian miniature style]was backward and outdated,” they say.
It was at this same time that they adopted their Singh Twins identity. “The fact that we were doing the same thing was a natural consequence of who we are generally.”
Special to The Globe and Mail