The Singh Twins

Khushwant Singh

Amrit Kaur and Rabindra Kaur The Twin Art

We didn’t realize how much time had passed discussing the works and talking until Dr. Karnail Singh—whose periodic pacing around the house we grew accustomed to—entered the room. ‘Bachhas, (endearingly calling us ‘children’) coffee or tea?’ he asked. ‘Horrible weather,’ he added. The unpredictable English weather had turned the beautiful July morning into a rain-drenched day.

‘Did you tell Khushwant about our India trip in 1980?’ he asked.

‘We were coming to that,’ replied Amrit. ‘We got caught discussing those horrible incidents.’ Chacha Marn walked in just then and asked whether I wanted to go for a walk up the road. Bindhu and Pupoo, the twins’ cousins, joined us until the rain interrupted the walk half a mile up the road. Once near the house, soft music could be heard against the backdrop of the setting sun. We entered to see Rabindra on the piano, playing Beethoven’s moonlight sonata. I sank into the chair next to her. I wasn’t much of a connoisseur of Western classical, but it was quite something to observe such multi-talented artists.

And the Next…

‘Seems like we have a bright day ahead,’ I cheerfully remarked the following morning.

‘We could take a drive later in the day and show you around the area,’ said Amrit, as she sorted out some papers.

‘Sure, the touristy thing is important,’ I responded. ‘But we missed talking about your India trip last night.’

‘Oh, yes. That was a very important landmark of our life,’ said the twins, as they recollected for me the daring expedition undertaken at a very tender age.

In 1980, when the twins were just teenagers, Dr. Karnail Singh—with his distinctive adventurous spirit (he holds a private pilot’s license and has a four-seater Beagle parked at the local flying club)—decided to undertake a journey from England to India by road and back. He bought a Fire Engine and converted it into a mobile home. Then, along with his three daughters and Chacha Marn, who shared the wheel with him, he set off on what the family terms as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ expedition. They drove through sixteen countries, including Iran and Iraq during the peak of the war (1980 Iran-Iraq War), and Pakistan, to reach India. The voyage was to change the twins’ life forever.

Once in India, they were introduced to their heritage and culture. India’s landscape, art, history, and spirituality left a deep impact on the minds of these two teenagers. It provided them with a sense of pride and identity in spite of being born and brought up in Britain and having studied in a Roman Catholic school. The twins were particularly drawn to the historic miniature form of art practiced by the Mughals, as they traveled through the country—starting from their native Amritsar and passing through Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra, till Goa. They remember carrying paper and pen at all times, scribbling scenes from comics like Amar Chitra Katha and painting images of Mumtaz Mahal. ‘We were, however, appalled by the neglect of the historic monuments,’ said the twins.

What was a once pastime soon started developing into a full-fledged style of painting. Initially, the twins trained themselves in the style by imitating examples of miniaturists’ work, reproduced in books, to learn the techniques and conventions. Later, they started to paint their own compositions, whereby they presented a record of their positive experiences of Asian life in Britain — a challenge to the negative media stereotypes of Asian traditional values. A lot of their earlier paintings, as opposed to the strong political statements their present works make, are influenced by images from within their extended family. ‘All Hands on deck’, ‘Morning Chaa’, ‘Nyrmla’s Wedding’, ‘Daddy in Sitting Room’, and ‘Forever in our Hearts’ — dedicated to their beloved uncle Chacha Baldave whom the twins describe as a constant source of encouragement — are some examples.

However, until this point, the twins had not opted for art as a career, as they wanted to pursue medicine. The attempt was thwarted when, during university applications, the school—that thought the twins had a natural talent for art—wrote in its report that the twins were ‘only pursuing medicine because of parental persuasion and family tradition’. After the failed attempt to join medicine, the twins took up Ecclesiastical History, Comparative Religion and Western Contemporary Art, only to become victims of what they call institutional prejudice.

‘The teachers didn’t approve of the fact that we were developing very similar styles and made the typical assumption that, as twins, we were deliberately copying one another,’ said Amrit, as she laughed at the whole matter. ‘There was a constant pressure to pursue different interests and sources of inspiration—which we resented. We didn’t see why we should be forced to study things we weren’t interested in and invent a false identity through our art, just so they could see us as individuals. But more annoyingly, our tutors made it quite clear that traditional Indian aesthetics had no place in contemporary art. It only made us more determined to uphold the sanctity of our style,’ Amrit continued. ‘We didn’t see why our heritage should be considered any less worthy. We felt the West’s attitude towards us manifested an extension of the derogatory evaluation of our culture in mainstream British society—a hangover from colonial attitudes of superiority. We are still fighting for our degree after the external examiner refused to mark our final dissertations, even though he thought they were “super-human” and “Ph.D. level”. Without any evidence whatsoever, he used the excuse that they were either copied or were the work of a third party, or both! We eventually learned that this examiner basically hadn’t liked what we had written about the significant impact of non-European art on western art development. We fought, and the university relented, but we still haven’t accepted the grade finally awarded to us because it didn’t reflect the external examiner’s academic assessment of our work. It fell seriously short of the first class degree originally awarded to us by the internal examiner for art, who was the only person who really knew our capability and had personally supervised the dissertations.

‘And the institutional prejudice did not stop with our degree. The
so-called art establishment of England, which holds the principle of freedom of expression in such high esteem—as the “be all and end all” of being an artist—still does not want to consider us British contemporary artists. Once when we approached a gallery in London for an exhibition, we were bluntly asked to check with the “ethnic” gallery down the road. I mean, we are natural British citizens and what else would you call contemporary British art?’ questioned a chuckling Rabindra.

Khushwant Singh