The large scale mixed media artworks are the final two panels of a 3 piece (triptych) artwork titled 'Jallianwala:Repression and Retribution' created by contemporary British artists, The Singh Twins, in response to the Centenary this year of the Jallianwala Bagh or Amritsar massacre: an atrocity perpetrated on 13th April 1919 during British rule in India, under orders of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, in which hundreds of Indian civilians who had gathered in a park (known as Jallianwala) to protest the introduction of draconian racist laws, were left dead and dying after being fired upon, without warning by British troops.
Whilst the central panel of the Twin's triptych (launched earlier this year at Manchester Museum) focused on the massacre itself which took place in the city of Amritsar in the North-West province of Punjab, the two new works (representing the left and right side panels of the triptych) largely explore the historical context, aftermath and legacies of this event whilst celebrating two key figures who responded to this major turning point in Indo-British colonial history in very different ways. Namely, Udham Singh (who avenged the oppression of his countrymen under British Rule some 21 years later by assassinating the then acting Lieutenant Govenor of Punjab Sir Michael O'Dwyer at Caxton Hall, London on March 30th, 1940) and Mahatma Gandhi for whom the massacre was a wake up call - exposing the 'true face of Empire': a revelation which changed his attitude towards the Raj and led him to intensify his campaign for Swaraj (or home rule) - triggering the beginning of the end of British colonial rule in India.
The two latest additions to The Singh Twin
's triptych were officially unveiled as part of 'An Audience With The Singh Twins' event at Manchester Museum this week: The very day that Udham Singh was executed by the British as a criminal for murder, at Pentonville Prison but is also officially honoured in India as a National hero of India's Freedom Movement. The artworks will be on display at Manchester Museum until 2nd October, which marks the 150th anniversary of Gandhi's birth this year.
Udham Singh dominates the upper half of the right panel which is dedicated to exploring the aftermath and legacies of Jallianwala. Sharped-suited, armed with the gun with which he assassinated O'Dwyer, and a passport bearing the many identities he assumed whilst planning his revenge, he grasps a clump of earth soaked with the blood of his countrymen. He is enthroned and haloed in a manner befitting his status in India as 'Shaheed-i-Azam' or 'great martyr' to India's Independence, whilst a noose representing the manner of his execution looms behind him. To Udham's left, a newspaper page reveals how the many hundreds killed and injured at Jallianwala, as well as the wider people of Punjab who were made to suffer under harsh martial law at that time, found a champion in the figure of Irish born, British Journalist, Benjamin Horniman who, as Editor of the Bombay Chronicle, broke the story to the world despite a press ban. Reading around the newspaper, we learn how Horniman was exiled from India, whilst his Indian reporter was imprisoned for this act of defiance; how Britain's official enquiry (Hunter Commission) into the atrocities committed in Punjab was a whitewash; how the honouring of Dyer by British appointed heads of the Sikh's Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) in Amritsar would lead to major reforms and anti British agitation within the Sikh community; how Jallianwala led to revolutionary activity amongst the Indian youth; how contemporary reports likened Jallianwala to Manchester's Peterloo massacre of 1819; how the perpetrator of the Amritsar massacre (Brigadier-General Dyer) would be plagued by a guilty conscience, whilst his superior (Michael O'Dwyer) became a celebrity figure in Britain boasting about his handling of Punjab under martial rule; and how a young Udham Singh vowed to seek revenge.
Talking about their artwork The Singh Twins say: "As well as making important episodes in shared British Indian history that have helped shaped the society we live in today accessible to a wider public, our artworks carry lessons for our modern times - not least, the vital role that journalists and the media play in exposing atrocities, giving a voice to the voiceless and ensuring that the right to justice for those oppressed in the world is fought for and preserved".
"In focusing on the darker side of the Indo-British colonial relationship, the artwork also raises questions about the nature of Empire - challenging the perception held by some, that it was a glorious period in our shared history and benevolent and positive force for good."
Turning to the left panel of The Singh Twin's triptych, this focuses on the historical context and circumstances leading up to the Jallianwala massacre. Central to the composition is a tree composed of flowers and birds symbolising a British Raj built on greed, trickery and deception, conquest and theft - (namely, Alpine Auricular, Clematis and Thorn Apple and the Dalhousie and Magpie respectively). Interspersed with these are sprigs of flowering Hop which, as a symbol of injustice, represent the plight of India's people.
To the immediate left of the tree is a scene reinterpreting a Victorian painting (by Edward Armitage) of Britannia slaying a Bengal tiger. Titled 'Retribution', the painting symbolically represents the putting down of what the British described as the Sepoy or Indian Mutiny of 1857: an event that shook the might of the Empire and resulted in the transfer of power in India from the British East India Company to the British Crown. The Singh Twins' reinterpretation of this painting, together with other details within their artwork serve to show how the atrocities committed in Punjab in 1919, revealed an Imperial mindset of colonial superiority, self-righteousness and use of excessive, exemplary punishment that harked back to the Indian Mutiny when retribution was meted out indiscriminately against thousands of Indians ('mutinous' sepoys and civilians alike) and justified by a sense of duty to protect the Empire. The Bengal tiger represents the North-West region of India which, together with Punjab, became a center of anti-British, revolutionary, activity following the much resented 'divide and rule' policy applied by Britain through the partition of Bengal in 1905.
THE LEFT PANEL: Further details revealed
Elsewhere we see imagery exemplifying some of the other causes of Indian discontent with British rule in India that were a precursor to Jallianwala. Namely, the deliberate destruction of India's craft industries; British interference with Indian religious traditions (especially through Christian missionary activity); the introduction of laws that curtailed the basic human rights of Indians and failed to treat Indians equally as subjects of the British Empire in India and abroad; Britain's failure to reward the loyalty and sacrifices of Indians during WWI; the introduction of taxes and agricultural and trade policies that resulted in famine and poverty and forced Indians to become indentured labourers for plantations in British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean and, finally, the expansion of the British Empire in India through annexation and legislation known as the 'doctrine of lapse' which met with resistance amongst the ruling classes. The latter is represented within a vignette depicting the Indian warrior queen Rani Jhansi defending her kingdom in vain from the army of the British East India Company in 1858. In the landscape to her right, we see the city of Lucknow - representing the princely state of Oudh which came under Company rule in 1856.
In the upper part of the panel, we see the figure of a shackled 'Mother India' - the personification of a land exploited, oppressed and enslaved by British commercial interests and longing for freedom. She represents the growing sense of Indian Nationalism that developed during the early 20th Century as a result of oppressive colonial British Rule. The colours and decorative motifs on her blouse along with her jewels symbolise the wealth of India before colonial conquest. Her sari is inscribed with extracts from a poetic tribute to Khudiram Bose - the Bengali revolutionary who became one of the first and youngest martyrs to the cause of India's Freedom Movement.
THE RIGHT PANEL: Further details revealed
To the right of Udham Singh, another newspaper carries a headline about the assassination of O'Dwyer and subsequent arrest of Mahomed Singh Azad - the name chosen and given by Udham Singh as an anti-colonial statement representing freedom gained (in defiance of British policies of 'divide and rule') through the unity of India's different religious communities. Others stories within the same broadsheet, recount how the retribution Udham Singh meted out against O'Dwyer received mixed responses against a changing political climate: Condemned in pre-Independent India by members of the Indian National Congress Gandhi and Nehru as an 'act of insanity' which they feared might impact negatively on Indo-British talks around the future of India taking place at that time. But hailed in WWII Germany and post Independent India as the legitimate act of a freedom fighter and Shaheed (martyr). Elsewhere we read how M15 and British India Intelligence failed to detect Udham's assassination plot, as well as his prior links with a major anti-colonial revolutionary organisation known as the Gadar Movement. And how measures were put in place to depoliticise his actions by dissociating them from the atrocity of Jallianwala.
Below Udham Singh we see the figure of Gandhi marching on the road to home rule through Swadesh (self-reliance or 'make in India' campaign). He holds a spinning wheel symbolising a return to cottage industries, whilst burning textile and other boycotted British consumer product labels on a bonfire of imported Lancashire cotton goods. Opposite Gandhi is a reinterpretation of Britannia revealing the 'true face' of Empire and the 'evils' of a British colonialism founded on the exploitation and oppression of India as well as other colonised peoples. Her traditional mount (the lion) is replaced with a crocodile representing the 'beast of colonialism': a symbolic convention borrowed from India's early 20th century, patriotic poster art.
The events of Punjab 1919 contributed to the rise in anti British feeling, resentment and distrust - leading to an increase in revolutionary activity and a growing sense of Indian Nationalism that culminated in a campaign of mass civil disobedience forcing Britain to reconsider the political future of India. This is represented by the two posters and the smaller trade card carried by Gandhi. The posters pay tribute to Neta Ji, leader of the Indian National Army; the Quit India Movement and the program of civilian strikes and British Indian Navy mutinies that posed a threat to the stability of the Raj during WWII. The trade card depicts the opening of the Round table Conference of 1930, which was established to discuss the future governance of India.
A tree represents the unity of India's three main religious communities through its flowers (Lotus for Hindus, Marigolds for Sikhs and Roses for Muslims). A peacock (the National bird of India) stands proudly on one branch, while a butterfly adorned with the colours of Independent India's flag, signifies the country's re-birth as a free nation in 1947. Below the tree is an image of the sandstone flame monument erected in memory of the victims of Jallianwala. A silver urn engraved with Udham Singh's name alludes to the added significance of the memorial garden, as the place where some of his ashes were preserved after his body was exhumed from Pentonville prison and repatriated at India's request, in 1974. A lotus denoting the pure soul in traditional Indian symbolism and iconography, floats on the surface of the monument's blue pool, whose reflection offers a glimpse of the horrors of 1919. Other details beneath the tree represent how the story of Jallianwala has been presented, paid tribute to and explored through popular culture (film, dance, music, art, exhibitions) and academic research in recent times - including books which The Singh Twins drew upon as part of their initial research for the triptych.
Quotes and verses from an earlier time float within decorative colophons on a river of blood that flows across the bottom of the artwork. Two of these, selected from an epic poem titled, 'Khooni Vaisakhi' (Bloody Vaisakhi) written in 1920, offer a unique and touching, personal eye witness account of events relating to the massacre that resonate with key themes explored throughout The Singh Twins' triptych.
Either side of the tree, two vignettes depict episodes and personalities of Indian history who influenced Udham Singh's life and,or, who were themselves influenced in some way by political changes associated with the events of Punjab 1919. To the left, we see Maharaja Duleep Singh, last ruler of Punjab who was deposed as a child, separated from his mother and bought up as an English gentleman after his kingdom was annexed by the East India Company in 1849. The scene recalls a chapter in Anita Anand's 2019 book 'The Patient Assassin', which describes how Udham Singh was reduced to tears and enraged by Britain's treatment of Duleep Singh. To the right, are fellow Indian freedom fighters Bhagat Singh and Lala Lajput Rai along with figures representing the Gadar Movement, the SGPC and Akali (Sikh anti-British Raj agitation movements) and the Khilafat (Indian Muslim movement).