The Singh Twins

Khushwant Singh

Amrit Kaur and Rabindra Kaur The Twin Art

The Following Day

‘Good morning, good weather,’ I remarked as I walked down the steps into the living room where everybody sat sipping their morning tea.

Six published works by Amrit and Rabindra lay on the center table. I picked up the latest: Worlds A-part: Paintings by the Singh Twins (Published 2005, Twin Studio) that contained their works along with essays by Dr Geoff Quilley, curator of the Maritime Museum, Greenwich and Veronica Sekules, founding head of education and research at the Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Other works I perused included Images of Freedom (2003), a visual narration of India’s freedom struggle, to the dawn of independence and partition; Past Modern: Paintings by the Singh Twins (2002); Bindhu’s Wedding, a multicultural children’s book of poems about Asian weddings in Britain; and Twin Perspectives, a full colour fine art publication with introductory essays by Dr Swallow of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Julian Spalding, former director of Glasgow Galleries and Museums, and Raj Pal, curator, Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries.

From being a farmer to becoming a journalist—who had covered stories from Hoshiarpur district in Punjab—the journey studying the art, attempting to crack the Past Modern theory and analyzing the usage of traditional Indian art in contemporary themes was like growing rice in a desert. I tried hard to unfurl the works and essays, of course with the twins’ assistance.

While flipping through the books, my attention was immediately drawn to the ‘Sportlight series’ produced during the Singh twins’ official appointment as artists in residence for the 2002 Commonwealth Games held at Manchester. A passionate piece of work, the Sportlight series comprises ten paintings that explore perceptions and representations of sport in today’s world. In their introduction to the series the twins write: ‘Sports figures and specific sports are presented in symbolic images that take a lighthearted and sometimes satirical look at how commercialisation and the mass media have transformed sport into a tool for product promotion, and increasingly blurred the boundaries between the world of sport, fashion, media, and celebrity’. This rings true, as we have witnessed TV channels in India fighting over telecast rights.

‘Ah! Beckham!’ I said, pausing at a page titled ‘From Zero to Hero’ as we walked to the dining room for more tea. The painting, done by Rabindra on a mount board in poster, gouache and gold dust, depicts Beckham’s image as portrayed through TV, newspapers, magazines and Internet sites. The painting is inspired by a traditional eighteenth-century Indian miniature and as per Veronica Sekules description, shows David and Victoria Beckham and their eldest son Brooklyn apotheosized in a manner that draws upon traditional artistic conventions used to depict the gods and demons from Indian mythology. The painting was intended as a moralizing and ironic narrative highlighting the follies of social aggrandizement and commercialism, showing Beckham’s many hands holding the many products he endorses and with the family enthroned in their home ‘Beckingham Palace’, in their paparazzi assigned role as ‘The New Royal Family’.

‘Oh dear! This painting stirred such a huge storm,’ claimed Amrit.

‘Why?’ I enquired, sensing I was going to get more masala.

‘These reckless tabloids, they can go to any extent to sell their stuff,’ commented Rabindra. The public relations agency hired for the promotion of the Commonwealth Games gave this image to the tabloids without seeking a press release from the twins and consequently carried headlines such as—‘Sikh artists show Beckham and Victoria as Hindu deities, Lord Shiva and Parvati’. This inflamed passions. Radical Hindu organizations went into overdrive issuing death threats to the twins. A sheep’s severed head was left on their doorstep, later thrown in their garden for the benefit of the foxes around. Graffiti threatening to kill them dirtied the walls of their home. And when things were just about cooling off, Chris Tarrant, on his famous programme ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ popped the question: Which footballer has been depicted as a Hindu god in a painting? It was a £16,000 question. ‘The fact that it was pitched at that level was a little disappointing but at least it meant that a lot of people were supposed to know about it,’ Rabindra joked. The twins fought and clarified the matter and the Hindu organizations, without exception, apologized for the excitement.

‘Our upbringing has been to always stand up for justice,’ said the twins, almost in rapid fire, as they completed the Beckham saga. ‘We don’t mind being criticised, as long as it is for something we have actually done, but to be attacked for something which was not even true of our work, was just not on! There had been a similar drama with our Diana painting,’ recalled the twins, as we discussed the political upheaval the Singhs’ paintings were capable of stirring. And guess who were the twins’ most vocal supporters? School children. Class eight students at a school in Nottingham reacted sharply after the Daily Mail carried a story titled ‘Rich in Symbolism, Poor in Taste’, commenting on the portrait ‘Diana: The Improved Version, 1997/9’. The twins created the painting using iconography drawn from both, traditional Britannic and Indian imagery. It is a further development of an earlier version of Princess Diana commissioned by the Arts Council of England for a film about the twins’ works. The children, assisted by their teacher who prepared the covering note, asked the editor of the Daily Mail to reconsider the lines ‘These sort of low-grade artists will always exist in our society, producing works which are vulgar and shallow.’ Other than school children, admirers of their art and young students aspiring to be artists have written poems on their work. The twins receive enormous fan mail and telephone calls each day.

Khushwant Singh