The Singh Twins

Khushwant Singh

Amrit Kaur and Rabindra Kaur The Twin Art

‘It’s an attitude which permeates outside the art world too, as we found out on another occasion, when it was publicly announced during the final judging of a nationally televised art competition that our work was too culturally different to be considered alongside the other entrants, even though we had already been successful in getting through the first two heats of the competition! Things have changed somewhat over the past decade. Now at least, representatives of the British establishment, in its new drive to promote a self-image of cultural diversity, would not be so foolhardy as to openly say such a thing.’

‘This has been a heavy session,’ I confessed.

‘Let’s go for a drive,’ proposed Amrit. The three of us, along with Chacha Sutu, got into a green Volkswagen. It was good weather as we drove along the river Dee, with the Welsh landscape as a stunning backdrop. While driving we passed a sports center ‘This is where we used to learn Karate,’ pointed out the twins.

‘Karate? For what?’ I enquired.

‘To nail down people,’ Rabindra joked.

‘Haven’t you heard our story?’ grinned Amrit, who I observed was more prone to giggling than Rabindra. ‘I am a green belt and Rabindra is a black belt,’ she said from the driver’s seat. ‘And by the way, Khushwantji, you know how ziddi we are, so you better get the book rolling soon!’ chuckled the twins mischievously.

A Fine Day

Everybody woke up late the next morning—probably exhausted from tending to a guest who had been probing and peeping into their lives for the past three days. A question on their plans to marry had been rejected outright as being too personal. The sun was already smiling brightly by the time the entire Dhigpal clan came down to the living room. Chacha Marn had left early for his garage, as he was winding up work for a three-week vacation with his family in Moga, Punjab.

The twins headed straight for the kitchen to prepare breakfast, leaving me with the opportunity to watch a documentary on their work.

The most satisfying work for the twins has been their painting reflecting Operation Bluestar, the codename for the Indian Army’s attack on the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The painting, titled ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ took them 998 hours to complete and was done almost a decade and a half decades after the army operation. It is presently on loan to the Smithsonian Institution, with a current estimated value of well over a million pounds, an amount that has actually been offered but turned down. ‘We need to clarify our stand on the painting before you use your own interpretation,’ said the twins laughingly. ‘After all, you are a pressman at heart.’

‘The painting,’ the twins said, ‘was a comment on politicians and politics being the same everywhere—essentially, about the universality of suffering caused by political ambition and abuse of power. It was painted to criticise the event, that is, the desecration of this sacred site and the huge loss of innocent lives, but we were conscious all along not to allow the painting to become an anti-India statement or to be misconstrued as promoting the cause of an independent Sikh state. We are Indians and we are proud to be Indian, in all its diversity. India is where we draw our social, moral and cultural values from and it is the Indianness in us that has taught us, to live with our heads held high,’ claimed the twins.

‘But most importantly, we are very clear in our minds that the atrocities committed against Sikhs in 1984—be it the attack on their shrine or the horrendous anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination later that year—lie squarely on the shoulders of individual politicians, not India as a nation.’

In 2005, the twins made a film about the painting. In order to bring the message of the painting to a wider audience, the film links the Sikh story of 1984 to the miscarriage of justice, innocent suffering, and humiliation suffered by Christ, as narrated in the Catholic tradition of the Via Dolorosa (meaning ‘path of pain’) or Stations of the Cross. ‘The idea behind the film,’ said the twins, ‘is to encourage greater empathy for the Sikhs, in what remains a largely neglected and misunderstood chapter in their recent history, by presenting it from the perspective of a faith which is much more widely understood by the global community.

‘Most of our work makes political comment; even the early British-Asian dual identity themes which many people mistakenly just describe as optimistic happy images, but which actually are political in themselves, as they challenge the right for so-called minority cultures to exist in the rapid process of globalisation, increasingly dominated by western values and lifestyles. Ultimately, what drives our work is a desire to make a real difference in the world by responding to issues that may be important to us, but which also affect and reflect on the state of society.’

For example, their Bush-Blair painting ‘Partners in Crime: Deception and Lies’ explores the questionable justification given by the partners of US and Britain for instigating what thousands across the world believe to be an unjust war. Hence, symbols of deceit and crime and the poison of words are represented by the aconite and convolvulus flower worn in the painting by Bush and Blair respectively. In addition, Bush with his Texan hat stands on a hyena that as the symbol of two-facedness, points to the hypocrisy of the USA’s stance in condemning an Iraqi dictator whom they once supported. Blair’s figure positioned on a poodle speaks for itself. This painting by the twins proved to be one of the most popular paintings in the artists’ 2005 retrospective exhibition at Liverpool, eliciting passionate responses from many visitors. Although they were banned during election week from talking about it to the press, ironically the painting remained on display in the gallery.

Khushwant Singh