EnTWINed was commissioned by the Museum of London in December 2008. The idea for the commission came about in 2004, when the Museum bought two paintings by Henry Nelson O’Neil, Eastward Ho! and Home Again. These canvases, painted in 1857 and 1858, show British soldiers embarking for the First Indian War of Independence and then disembarking after completing their tour of duty. Rather than indulging in flag-waving heroics, they concentrate very effectively on the domestic impact of war. However, understandably, any sense of what the wider issues of the war and its ramifications were is missing.
To address this we commissioned the Singh Twins to respond to the O’Neil’s from an Indian perspective. The Singh Twins (b.1966), fuse traditional Indian miniature painting techniques and Western influences to create images which deal with a wide range of contemporary issues.
The finished painting is an extraordinary and eclectic mix of the historical and the contemporary, the serious and the ephemeral. Taking the composition of the O’Neils as their point of departure, the Twins have used the idea of disembarkation to develop an image which touches upon the Indian diaspora throughout the British Isles (hence the skyline, which includes buildings from London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bradford). Amongst the figures disembarking from the ship are 20th century campaigners for independence, including Mahatma Gandhi, veterans of the First and Second World Wars representing the role that Indians have played in the British Army, and the artists’ grandmother and father. The Twins appear at bottom right wearing the official Singh tartan. In counterpoint, a Victorian woman is shown wearing a paisley shawl, evidence of the historical textile links between Scotland and India.
Almost in the middle of the composition is the prominent suffragette, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. The photograph from which this image derives is in the Museum’s suffragette collection. Sophia Singh was daughter of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of The Punjab, who stands richly attired at the lower-right, next to a mehndi-sporting Madonna.
The figures portrayed in the clouds are the freedom-fighters Guru Gobind Singh, Shiva Ji and Maharana Pratap. Analogies between the Indian War of Independence and the current War on Terror are drawn in two quotes: one from Feroz Shah, which scrolls around the left-hand border; the other from George Bush, which occupies a cartouche at top-right.