A conversation with the twin sisters Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh who call London home, and time spent browsing their artwork online was enough to highlight the unique power of the artist within society. We drive on the right side of the road, pay our taxes on time, tend to our yards, and live a pretty orderly existence, adhering to many dictates. When there are political issues that affect us, we write letters to the editor, or talk loudly at the next party we go to. But, artists who have a strong political conscience can create artwork that remains as lasting physical proof of the mindset of a people at a certain moment in history.
Creating works of art that they label as “Past Modern” in a deliberate attempt to stand apart from the phenomenon of postmodernism, the Singh sisters question the current socio-political climate and the arts establishment as well.
“Partners in Crime” shows George Bush and Tony Blair shaking hands standing atop the globe, “Nineteen Eighty Four” shows an aerial view of the horror within the Golden Temple at Amritsar, and “From Zero to Hero” shows a smiling David Beckham seated on a throne and being feted with pomp and glitter. The reason for labeling their work “past modern” comes from the fact that they draw inspiraton from Indian miniature painting traditions while expressing contemporary ideas.
“Our professors were not happy that we were turning to the miniature painting tradition from India for inspiration within the context of contemporary art. As teenagers, we traveled to India on a 8-month long trip in a caravan. An important moment on that trip came when we visited the National Museum in Delhi. There, we were so impressed by the miniature paintings and were dismayed that contemporary Indian artists were only copying Western role models to create contemporary art. We decided to use the technique in our paintings, in spite of the initial negative feedback we got.”
“Why not look at Western masters of the contemporary art scene like Picasso and Matisse instead of looking at miniature Indian paintings?” they were told. Their response was, “There has always existed a cross-migration of ideas between the East and the West. If we do not experience a free flow of ideas between continents as artists, how can we stand for universal ideas?”
Amrit and Rabindra Kaur are artists who do not shy away from facing tough questions about their art, identity, or the argumentative discourse of East versus West. They speak out convincingly, and then, go one step further and use their art to reflect their inner convictions. “Our first series out of college was a response to the West’s unending emphasis on the ‘individual’ and the notion of individuality being somehow superior to the dependence nurtured within the Indian extended family ethos. We did a series of paintings depicting family settings, and individuals from multiple generations living under the same roof. In college, our professors told us that even though we were twins, we had to develop an ‘individual’ voice when it came to painting. We were not consciously trying to be the same, but we do have a very similar socio-political outlook that gets reflected in our work. This kind of reliance and dependence within a family was considered less superior to having our individuality revealed.”
Hearing this response and remembering their unusual 8 month trip across India, I ask about their formative influences in childhood. “Our Sikh tradition has always encouraged the idea of strong women. Our father is our primary inspiration. The 8-month jaunt across India was his brainchild. And, we’ve always been encouraged to speak our mind at the dinner table. Apart from art we’ve always been encouraged to follow what we are passionate about.” And, my next question makes them laugh heartily, “Do you argue about how a painting needs to take shape?” “Very rarely,” they say promptly, “on some occasions, we argue about the colors to use, but we resolve those differences fairly quickly. If we can’t decide on a way to move forward with a painting, we then turn to our father who always helps us.”
Amrit and Rabindra Singh have won many prizes and have exhibited at many venues across the world. They are the main speakers at the tenth anniversary of SACHI (Society for Art and Cultural Heritage of India). SACHI has regularly invited speakers to various venues in the Bay area and provides a valuable forum for further intellectual exploration and debate.
Saturday, November 10, 2 p.m. Past Modern: Paintings and lecture by the Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh. Followed by screening of documentary, “Nineteen Eighty Four,” directed by the Singh sisters. Organized by SACHI. Asian Art Museum. 200, Larkin St., San Francisco. Free with Asian Art Mueseum admission. (650) 349-1247, (650) 315-5515. www.sachi.org www.asianart.orgwww.singhtwins.co.uk
|Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is on the editorial board of India Currents.|