(Written by Kamalpreet Kaur)
While the British parliamentarians were busy debating a formal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, I had the privilege of seeing an evocative and painful, yet glorious and rich artwork ‘Jallianwala Bagh: Repression and Retribution’ by contemporary British artists The Singh Twins.
The decorated duo, renowned for their Indian miniature style of paintings, allowed me to look at their mixed-medium artwork, passionately created to mark the centenary of the massacre, at the unveiling at Manchester Museum Thursday.
“It is the centre-piece of a triptych, a work in progress, which will eventually be showcased as a series at the museum,” say Amrita and Rabindra. Like all of their works, it’s an intense labour of love, taking between them, around 30 meticulous hours a day, since January.
The rich detail in this massive piece of art — 81” wide and 104” high — is breathtaking. Each stroke, figure, quote, included in the piece adds depth and enhances it beautifully. The main part of this centre piece is hand-painted. The fact that the tragedy unfolded on a Baisakhi day in Amritsar is captured in the architectural carvings and the archway itself “which is inspired by the work at the Golden Temple”.
Having both the sun and the moon in the picture depicts the timelessness of the event. “It also shows that the victims did not receive help for hours together,” they add. When I spot Udham Singh sitting and pondering, they say, he would be the thread that also connects the narrative in the third piece in the triptych. The expression on the faces of the people: dead, dying, fleeing, helping, and shooting are extremely transparent in the way they convey the gory tale. The richness of colours in the way people are dressed adds to the irony of the situation, the ephemeral nature of humans.
The hand-painted centre fluidly transitions and blends into the digital arch. “It helps divide as well as connect the different sub-layers of art and Empire narrative that runs through the piece,” they say. The Martyr’s Well sits as a crown on the archway dome. As a figure of £1.3 million catches my eye, they smile and explain, this was what in today’s amount was raised as funds for General Dyer when he returned to the UK. Quotations from Lord Stanley, General Dyer, Rabindranath Tagore, Winston Churchill, William Hicks and Rudyard Kipling have been placed in such a way that they appear to be embedded inscriptions.
Also, on the verandah underneath the arch, sits a quote by a British journalist Benjamin Guy Horniman, the editor of The Bombay Chronicle. “There’s also a human aspect to the Empire narrative. There were people like him who did raise their voice against the atrocity,” say the twins.
On the left flank is the full length drawing of Dr Anne Besant, holding a book on the Amritsar massacre in her right hand. Underneath is a quote by Marcella Sherwood (the English woman who had come under attack by protesters and following which the Crawling Order was enforced). An alcove over which Kucha Kaurian Wala and underneath which Crawling Street, is the depiction of a recess where Sherwood tried to hide to escape the wrath of the mob.
On the right flank is Gen eral Dyer, positioned above the entrance to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, as if lording over it. And as his actions are viewed differently by different people, there’s a halo over his head for the view that “he was the saviour of Punjab” and a tail to show “the beast” who ordered the massacre. One can’t miss the saffron robe on his right arm “that is symbolic of the honour he received at the golden temple by a British-appointed mahant.” To highlight the fact that Jallianwala is not an isolated event, the artists have drawn references to Boston Massacre of 1770 as well as Peterloo massacre of 1819 at the base of the archway. “These events are shown behind bars to signify how the state justifies action by criminalising the legitimate protests,” they say.
“The two old newspaper clips that you see have been created from scratch digitally,” the artists say. An English officer is seen flogging a young Sikh and the bloodied back reads ‘Dyerarchy’. “We wanted to create something that was acceptable to the masses, but also to depict the feelings of the descendants of the victims who want an apology. This is also very much about the British and global history and how looking at history can make us understand where we are today and show us the way into the future,” they say.
How often does one come across a piece of art that tells a story in a way that it gets etched in one’s conscience, a stroke at a time? This one left me mesmerised.
(Kamalpreet Kaur is a London-based writer and broadcaster)