The Singh Twins: Re-Interpreting Miniature Art

An example of a miniature painting from Rajasthan
I have been a long-time admirer of miniature paintings, especially those originating from Rajasthan, the north-western Indian state which I belong to. However, while in awe of their beauty and technical finesse, I often find myself pondering the paintings' subject matter. Apart from the miniature artists' superlative ability to so effectively create and convey a microcosm through the minute, painstaking nature of their art, I also think much about the two-dimensional figures that populate these paintings. The ubiquitous presence of Hindu deities, kings and queens, courtiers, and their attendants: yet, who are they? What are they thinking? Why is it that they happen to be where they are in the paintings? At times, it seems that the lovingly detailed leaves conjure up a greater air of vitality than the figures themselves. The figures in turn are shrouded in mystery, performing within the painting and yet, their faces are impassive, refusing to reveal what lies beneath their perfectly manicured features. Indeed, these characters seem as anonymous as their creators. 

Many contemporary artists are nowadays engaging and reinterpreting the miniature art traditions, and when I encountered The Singh Twins' miniature art, I was fascinated and wished to explore more of it. 

Internationally acclaimed artists and twins who were born, raised, and work in the United Kingdom, Amrit Singh Kaur and Rabindra Kaur Singh, create their art together, hence, their moniker: The Singh Twins. Deriving inspiration from Mughal miniature paintings which they encountered during a trip to India, they were drawn toward the richness of technique and presentation -- and were keen to practice and revive the art traditions, which were otherwise in decline and neglected. Their artistic journey has witnessed them introducing the miniature art techniques and legacies to a wider audience while simultaneously interweaving contemporary narratives, themes, and issues into their work, creating a  vital, dynamic form of miniature art.

Examining two of their paintings reveal how they incorporate the miniature art traditions into their work while infusing them with their unique identities and perspectives.

Nrymla's Wedding II
At first glance, Nrymla's Wedding II (1985/6), depicting the mehendi (henna-painting) ceremony taking place for their sister, is layered with meticulous, beautifully ornamental detail, as per miniature art traditions; however, as one looks more closely, it is evident that the painting exists beyond mere aesthetics. With the post-modern aspect of artists themselves entering the frame, being both the creators and subjects, the painting also explores the interface of domestic and public spaces. A joyful, traditional atmosphere permeates the interiors, as evidenced by these signifiers: the dancing little girl, the bright-yellow dressed boy playing upon the drum, a videographer documenting the event, and a woman arriving laden with fruit. However, as the artists' commentary denotes, outside, for instance, we see the McDonalds' logo, a universal visual byword for globalisation and despoiling of the environment, triggering a debate about globalization and its impact upon cultural heterogeneity. The paintings are therefore no longer static, frozen moments; aesthetics and debate co-exist, encouraging the viewer to both admire the artistic traditions defining the work as well as being used a medium to create a space of interrogating contemporary issues.

Love Lost
Love Lost (2001) channels elements from the Persian miniature traditions while simultaneously being utterly modern; reinterpreting the tale of the traditional star-crossed Persian lovers, Laila-Majnun, the artists refer to it as being a commentary on the contemporary nature of love. This work demonstrates that while the artists showcase knowledge of various miniature traditions, they also playfully reinterpret styles and structure associated with each and imbue it with their personal artistic language. For example, rather than strictly adhering to boundaries (as typically seen in Persian miniature paintings with their thick borders), they literally step out of the box as seen through the presence of the car and ladder. The artists also draw upon various literary and cinematic romantic traditions in this visual commentary: the cell-phone clutching and television watching figures are Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's famous lovers whereas reference to a popular romantic Hindi films emerges through images of the films, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Mughal-e-Azam. The combination of satirical commentary, mixed media, and traditional Persian art features make it an intriguing interpretation of both the traditional tale and technique. 

The Singh Twins' work is not as much a deviation from the miniature art fashion as broadening its scope for engagement with a global, contemporary audience; their work revitalises and reiterates the traditions while placing it in context to personal and contemporary global narratives. 

Please see and read more about The Singh Twins' work.

Photo credit: The Singh Twins' paintings' images courtesy The Singh Twins