The Singh Twins

Khushwant Singh

Amrit Kaur and Rabindra Kaur The Twin Art

The Singh Twins: 2005 (Excerpted from Sikhs Unlimited)

You’ll be in trouble if only one of the twins were to turn up at the bus stop,’ said the English lady sitting alongside me as the National Express coach pulled up at the Liverpool bus depot. Sharp thinking I thought, as I gazed through the large glass panes on a gloomy July day, trying to spot the famous British-Asian contemporary artists, Amrit and Rabindra K.D. Singh—the ‘Singh Twins’—my hosts for the next few days. I noticed a petite woman, probably in her late thirties, dressed in an orange and red salwar kameez, waiting anxiously, who I presumed was one of the twins.

‘Sat Sri Akal, I’m Rabindra,’ she said in a strong British accent, as she held out her hand, offering to help with the luggage. ‘Sorry, Amrit didn’t come as the three of us wouldn’t have fit in the car,’ she said, as she started up the engine and pressed hard on the pedal of the bright yellow Z3 BMW with a DE5I ART number plate. No wonder she had asked me the number and sizes of the bags I would be carrying! The car roared into action as we drove across the river Mersey to their home, Dhigpal Niwas, just fifteen minutes away.

I was ushered into a long room that had a huge stack of canvasses covered in polythene lying on one side, giving me a glimpse of the artistic journey that lay ahead. I was distracted by a huge stock of books, mostly on Sikh and Mughal history, art and culture on the right-hand wall. A computer with a massive rack of CDs faced the bookshelf and a bay window separated the two storehouses of information and communication.

Another petite lady, she too in a salwar kameez, and sporting a similar hairstyle, ornaments, and Punjabi slippers to Rabindra, stood right in front, talking on the phone. We exchanged a spontaneous smile as Amrit gestured an extra minute to complete her conversation.

I followed Rabindra through another door that leads to a formal living area where an imposing figure sporting a grey Rajputana style mustache and beard, sat with a small-sized Punjabi lath (stick) in hand. ‘Meet Daddy,’ said Rabindra, introducing Dr. Karnail Singh. During my five-day stay, I discovered that this charismatic gentleman had given Dhigpal Niwas the character of no ordinary address. From the cluttered rooms of this house emerged a unique genre of British paintings, using miniature styles to represent contemporary themes and issues. The house was a prime example of how Sikh traditional values and western style of living had been blended to create a symphony. Dhigpal Niwas was not merely an address of two celebrity artists whose work lay in the galleries of the Smithsonian in the USA or the Royal Museums of Scotland and private collections across the world, but a tutorial for whoever wanted to study perfect human relationships in an extended family, which included Dr Karnail Singh’s younger brother, Chacha Marn and his family.

Amrit soon joined us, and she kindly enquired if my journey had been comfortable—given the London blasts and the massive racial paranoia following it. A mosque had been attacked in their hometown as a reaction, post 7/7. ‘So far so good,’ I replied, searching for, and voicing, my dilemma for a distinction between the almost identical twins. Amrit laughed as she helped me out, ‘Bindi (Rabindra’s nickname) has a much rounder face.’ The other difference I observed was the smile. So my technique would be to say something in a lighter vein and look out for the difference in smiles. But the next few days revealed that it was a mistake to look for dissimilarities between the two. The smiles may be different, but their souls were bonded. Their thinking was similar, in tandem, as was their talent. Courage was a virtue inherent in both and each had, with equal determination, battled the racial and cultural discrimination unleashed on them ever since childhood.

In an attempt to seek differences, I was repeating what their school, university, society and art establishment had attempted over the years, trying to separate the twins rather than judge them through their own unique perspective. Western thought has always stressed on the individual rather than the family unit and had tried hard to catch up with the twins, but the London-born sisters had defied narrow perceptions, fighting for a legitimate acceptance on their own terms. I was to learn how they had created a niche for themselves in Britain’s art and social world and were among the most recognized British-Asian faces. Through their work, which the Guardian described as ‘some of the most optimistic images of our multicultural world’, the twins had initiated a new movement in the revival of Indian miniature tradition with modern art practice. The twins describe their work as Past Modern (as opposed to Post Modern), challenging existing stereotypes and redefining generally accepted, narrow perceptions of heritage and identity in art and society. In other words, the Singh twins were paying homage to all the taboos of contemporary art—the bright, decorative, narrative and intricate traditional styles of painting. Their work has brought them invitations to speak at the prestigious Tate Gallery of London, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and Mumbai, just to name a few. Their contributions to the world of art have been profiled in various mainstream publications including the Penguin History of Scotland and the Oxford History of Art publication on Portraiture, besides being incorporated into the Open University syllabus and other courses of Britain’s formal education system.

Khushwant Singh