It seems such an unlikely success story: identical twins of Indian origin, born in the UK, become famous artists and depict their home city of Liverpool (left) and other more controversial scenes in the style of Mughal miniature paintings, inspired by the intricate and colourful miniatures seen as teenagers when their father drove them round India in a converted bus. That is the story of the Singh Twins, Amrit and Rabindra, now in their 40s, who have just completed a month’s tour of India where they were feted in Delhi and Mumbai.
Mughal miniatures are usually small in size, just a few inches square, and rarely more than an A4 sheet of paper, but the twins produce works of more than 2ft by 3ft which mix miniatures’ traditional minute detail with a form of pop art. Alka Pande, a Delhi-based artistic curator and author, says the twins are “brilliant colourists who have taken Indian miniatures to a completely new level with reflections on contemporary life”.
Since the late 1980s, they have had solo as well as group exhibitions in many UK locations including the National Portrait Gallery (March 2010), as well as in the US and Canada. In India, there have been numerous shows including one at the National Gallery of Modern Art in 2002-03. In the past month, they have been showing The Making of Liverpool – portraits of a city (and an accompanying film) at Delhi’s Art Alive Gallery, and a series of Tarot card images at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery and at the British Council in Delhi with Gallery Nvya.
There are two main strands to most of their work – recording the lives of Indians as they merge with British culture, and attacking what they see wrong with society, especially increasing commercialism and the misuse of power and challenges to Indian culture.
“We saw our works as being important to challenge established cultural biases,” says Rabindra. “So we moved away from traditional miniature subjects to things like Indians living in the UK, against a background of Liverpool, with subjects like arranged marriages, celebrating our traditional heritage and making our culture positive rather than outdated, so celebrating both that and British culture,” they add in unison.
Their father, a Sikh, who accompanies them (together above) on all their trips, emigrated to the UK in 1947 and settled on Merseyside, practising as a doctor. They were heading towards medical careers when he took them to India in the converted bus in 1980. There they bought a book on Mughal miniatures that transformed their lives. At their Roman Catholic convent school there was no-one to teach them miniature art, so they copied pictures from the book. Their next stop was London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where they photographed and enlarged miniatures so they could study the brush strokes.
These two petite and always identically dressed women make all their decisions jointly, sometimes arguing, but always agreeing on social and political views and on what to do. They occasionally paint separately but usually work together, sometimes forgetting later who did what on the bigger works.
It is difficult to tell them apart, though Rabindra is slightly more sparky. “We are ‘twindividuals’, she laughs, rebutting their college tutors’ view that they were not being individual enough. Amrit says they have only been apart for one week when one of them was in hospital. That, they say, means there has been no time for the complications of other relationships – which of course strengthens the uniqueness of the Singh Twins brand.
They have been fighting convention since they were at university in Liverpool, where they were told that Indian miniatures were not relevant and they should be learning from Matisse, Gaugin and Picasso. “We said that Gaugin and others had been influenced by India and other foreign works, and that we were being denied our own way of expressing ourselves,” they say. ”There was pressure to conform to Western ideas but we were challenging accepted notions of heritage and identity”.
Their recent shows in India (above and top) are striking in artistic and technical detail, depicting scenes against a backdrop of Liverpool’s monumental skyline and showing what Pande calls the twins’ “quirkiness and humour”.
But they are mild compared with earlier controversial work. In 1998, the twins painted Nineteen Eighty Four, The storming of the Golden Temple, which depicted (left) the Indian Army invading the Sikhs’ Golden Temple in 1984 – the temple stands in a startling red pool of blood, and the late Indira Gandhi, the prime minister who ordered the attack, watches (with Bill Clinton and Maggie Thatcher) from the turret of a tank as men, women and children flee for their lives, or lie dead. Then there is Partners in Crime, Deception and Lies, (below) with president George W. Bush and prime minister Tony Blair standing cockily on a burning blood-strewn globe of the world after the invasion of Iraq.
Those two works are painted on mountboard with poster colours, gouache and gold dust, and 1984 is their largest work at almost 30in by 40in. Now they have moved on technologically. The Liverpool works they took to Delhi were limited editions of giclee prints, individually produced and coloured by the artists with digital scans (approx 30in x 22in, priced at around Rs200,000 – $4,000, £5,000), and smaller hand-painted mixed media digital originals (about half the size and twice the price of the giclees).
The originals of 1984 and Partners in Crime are in the twins’ personal collection, but they have been reproduced in special editions – 1984 in an edition of 1000 prints and Partners in Crime in a signed and numbered giclee run of 25.
The 1984 work was seen by some in India as being violent and controversial, but the twins say that both works were taken, as was intended, “as a commentary on the stage of politics globally – and how political greed, corruption and abuse of power is a universal concern that effects and threatens us all”.
“Our role is political and social, documenting and commenting,” adds Rabindra. “The 1984 work is not just about the event, but about political greed and the misuse and corruption of power”.
Images © The Singh Twins
This article originally appeared in a shorter form on The Economist’s Prospero arts blog