July 15, 2013

The Singh Twins: Re-Imagining Indian Miniature Art

For the past few months, I have been contributing monthly posts about international women artists at International Museum of Women's blog, Her Blueprint; it allows me a window into their creative mindscapes, wondering what impels them to create what they do. I have so far written about several artists including Mona Kamal, Haleh Anvari, and Tulika Ladsariya, and Lamia Gargash, to name a few.

My first post was a commentary on the British-Asian miniature artists, The Singh Twins' work, whose re-imagining of traditional Indian miniature art I have long admired and pondered about. In this post, I explore their work by examining two of their paintings which particularly left an impact upon me.

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 (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


  1. I first came across The Singh Twins work in an issue of Gallerie magazine. I am pleased to read your excellent analysis of some of their paintings. I agree with what you have said in the last paragraph. It is always a relief to me when contemporary artists don't sacrifice beauty to convey their message in their work.


  2. Thanks, Priya, glad you appreciated the analysis...yet, that's the thing - there's lots to unpack from the paintings (and I could have gone on and on!) but that does not take away from appreciating the paintings simply for their sheer aesthetics and mastery of technique alone. I adore miniature paintings and I guess that's why I intuitively connected with The Singh Twins' work - their works may be much more layered than their predecessors' but still a breathtaking sight to behold.

  3. Loved your analysis of The Singh Twin's works, I would have loved to read more :-)
    I like the way how they have infused more life, story, emotions and variety in to the traditional miniatures, this I would truly call evolving from the roots.


  4. As I had originally written it for the Her Blueprint blog, I thought I would restrict my ramblings;)...but as I mentioned to Priya above, there is so much more to explore in their work:) Perhaps, I should think about working on a full fledged article about their work. Also, when you say, 'truly evolving from the roots,' you've really captured the essence of their philosophy:)


Thank you so much for taking the time out to leave a comment. I look forward to hearing from you!