New ideas for traditional art

 3 February 2011

The Singh Twins create contemporary images using traditional Indian miniature painting techniques.

Amrit Singh: "We're contemporary British artists working in the medium of painting, and we work together as a collaboration."

Rabindra Singh: "The style of painting we work in is based in a very ancient Indian tradition called miniature painting, and it's a very decorative, small-scale style of work. A lot of detail, a lot of symbolism, a lot of narrative. And generally we were inspired by that work on our first visit to India as teenagers."

Starting an artistic career

Amrit Singh

“We actually didn't do an art degree, per se. We went to university and did a combined study degree, and our first choice was comparative religion and ecclesiastical history, and actually we fell into art by default because it was the only subject that would fit within the combined subject timetable.

“We had to learn from books and by copying original Indian miniatures and taking photographs of examples in museums so we could see literally how the brushstrokes had been placed. This style is completely self-taught.”

“So we found ourselves sitting in a contemporary western art history course alongside the other subjects, and obviously there was a practical side to that art course too.

"At that time we had no intention of being artists at all, we really wanted to enter a life of academia. But we faced such tremendous backlash to the kind of work we were inspired by, the fact we were inspired by a non-Western tradition was a real problem for our tutors within the art course itself. It really got us thinking about this notion of what art is, and who defines what art is, and how it's valued in society today.

“It seemed quite clear to us from the feedback we had from our tutors at university that the kind of art we were doing was not considered to be 'real' art. I think we felt this was a kind of an intentional prejudice in many ways, something that reflected the ingrained prejudice in the system towards things of non-European origin.

“It was something that was reflected in our background, as Asians growing up in Britain, the whole idea of feeling that we had to assimilate to British mainstream life and not value or retain our own traditional heritage as well.”

Developing an artistic style

Rabindra Singh

"During our art course, we were actually presented with models from Western art history like Picasso and Gauguin and Matisse, who all of course had been inspired by non-European art and developed these breakaway art forms for their time.

“To us, it seemed a bit strange that although we were expected to follow these western role models who'd been inspired by the east, it wasn't okay for us to go directly to eastern art forms and be inspired by those.

“So it made us more determined to put non-European art forms on the same level as western European art forms. And really the style we have today is something we've had to develop on our own, we've had no formal training whatsoever in the Indian miniature style.

“We had to learn from books and by copying original Indian miniatures and taking photographs of examples in museums and galleries and blowing those photographs up so we could see literally how the brushstrokes had been placed on the works themselves. So really this style is self-taught, completely.”

Traditional styles for modern subjects

Amrit Singh

"We had no intention of being artists at all, we wanted to enter a life of academia. But we faced such backlash to the kind of work we were inspired by, it really got us thinking about what art is, and who defines it is, and how it's valued in society."

“I think it's important to stress that although we're working in a very traditional style, we consider the work to be very contemporary.

“One of the things we wanted to do was try and prove how ancient traditions, whether Indian or otherwise, still have a continuing relevance in contemporary society, and particularly in the art world.

"So the issues that we deal with through our work are very contemporary political, social, cultural issues.”

Making a successful artistic career

Amrit Singh

"Over the last five years we're getting invites from huge galleries like the National Gallery to include our works alongside other artists both old and new, Turner Prize winners as well as Turner and other historical artists.

“It's great for us because it makes us feel like we really are finding a place for this work that we're doing, within the scheme of the whole history of art, which was one of our main aims when we started off many years back as artists.”


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