The Singh Twins

Khushwant Singh

Amrit Kaur and Rabindra Kaur The Twin Art

Given a choice between lucrative commissioned work that doesn’t really appeal to them and less financially rewarding work, the Singh twins will promptly opt for the latter. Based on their principle to communicate as good role models especially for British-Asian youth, the twins have refused many an assignment. In 1999, they refused an advertising company point blank when it approached them to do an advertising campaign for a beer company, based on the Kamasutra, the ancient Indian text on love. The twins never felt right about endorsing alcohol, so they never felt comfortable with the campaign. The Kamasutra was not a problem, as it has been so misunderstood in the West, remarked the twins. Ironically, the advertising agency went ahead with its idea and hired somebody else to do the campaign in the twins’ style.

A more positive experience was working on the ‘Iqbalnama’ series commissioned in 2000 by The Royal Museums of Scotland for their permanent collections on Scottish history, including the Penguin History of Scotland. This series of six paintings profiles the life of a modern-day Sikh personality, Glasgow based Baron Iqbal Singh, who is well known for his patronage of Scottish culture. The commissioning was just not about a Sikh who embraced Scottish culture as his own, but also illustrated how a Punjabi Sikh came to be formally recognized as a symbol of contemporary Scottish identity and the collective cultural heritage of Scotland.

‘Time to get some lunch,’ remarked Rabindra.

‘Oh yes,’ said Amrit and both the sisters headed to the kitchen. I decided to take a stroll in the backyard. After crossing huge piles of paintings, and moving some, I reached the deck where Dr. Karnail Singh sat reading the biography of Ranjit Singh. ‘Come, come, let me tell you something interesting,’ he said. ‘Do you know the only time the twins have been parted in their lives was for a week? It was when one of them had fallen ill and had to be hospitalized.’

‘That is quite something. What else can you tell me about them?’ I enquired, suddenly gaining an appetite for more information.

‘Well, nothing in particular, except that I ensured I provided them with paper and pen at all times. As young girls, they learned Bharatnatyam. They know how to play the sitar, the flute, and the piano. As a father, it was my duty to provide them with every opportunity so that they could pick and choose their inclinations.’

Dr. Singh set high standards by using the basic yardstick that children always emulated their elders, trying to match up to them. ‘Though not an orthodox Sikh, I followed the Sikh philosophy and you can’t go very wrong with that,’ said Dr. Singh, who came to England in 1948 from Amritsar at the age of eight, with his parents.

‘So what paints do you use?’ I asked as Amrit and Rabindra brought out a sandwich lunch.

‘You’ll be surprised—we use the Indian Camel poster colors for all our work.’

‘And how many hours of work do you put into one session?’ I asked, getting into a rapid-fire mode.

‘Anything between ten to fifteen hours at one go, with a lunch or dinner break.’

‘What is it with film stars? My room has a number of sketches of Mel Gibson and Marilyn Monroe.’

‘That is because of our craze for Hollywood movies,’ said Rabindra, who has drawn most of those Mel Gibson sketches. The stunningly beautiful Monroe has been featured in a series, ‘Facets of Femininity’, created at the invitation of The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, in a response to its major exhibition, ‘The Blue Bower: Rossetti in the 1860’s’. Retaining the format of Rossetti’s ‘The Blue Bower’, the artists have reinterpreted its symbolism to explore how perceptions of women have changed since then, by highlighting the diverse achievements of the twentieth and twenty-first-century female icons, including social activists, politicians, pop and film stars.

Soon evening descended and it was time for a barbeque.

A lot of the twins’ earlier work reflects their daily household events, and cooking meals on the propane lit barbeque machine is a cherished part of these.

It was about one a.m. when we bade each other good night.

I was woken by the morning drizzle that reminded me to pack my bags, as it was time to leave for Birmingham. Post a hearty breakfast, the twins dropped me to the bus stop, where tight security had been deployed after the police had arrested one of the suicide bombers from Birmingham, after a failed attack in London on 21 July. ‘See you in India, when you come for your next exhibition,’ I said.

They waited in the rain till the bus moved on its journey ahead. As the bus steadily made its way I relived every conversation and it evoked rich memories of the immeasurable talent of the Singh Twins who had made their mark in the tightly contested world of art.

Khushwant Singh