“This exhibition is centred around the resilience of memory recall, the potentials of sound and the active participation of listening”: Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu

Text by Avani Thakkar, with inputs from Asad Sheikh. Photography by Raajadharshini.

The artist, Nirbhai “Nep” Singh Sidhu, in front of a textile installation from Unstruck Melody.

On an overcast morning so typical of London, I find myself at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) to explore Unstruck Melody, Canadian artist Nirbhai “Nep” Singh Sidhu’s latest exhibition curated in collaboration with the UK-based arts organisation Without Shape Without Form (WSWF). As soon as I step into the museum, my weather woes are replaced by a sense of serenity — for the interiors of the space where the exhibition is on show are awash with gentle blue lighting, and tranquil acoustic instrumental music plays in the background.

In Unstruck Melody — on show till October 15, 2023 — created for this year’s edition of the London Design Festival, the artist, along with curator Deep K. Kailey (artistic director of WSWF), explores the essentials of Sikh practices in an experiential setting that combines paintings, embroidered tapestries, sculpture and film. Since this is the focus of the collaboration, you might think that you need a certain depth of knowledge or interest in the subject to identify with and fully appreciate Unstruck Melody.  But after spending the day conversing with the British-born Sidhu at V&A, it soon becomes apparent that the core of his work revolves around something far more universal.

Dressed in a bright yellow sweatshirt imprinted with “Sound of the Universe”, and shorts that seem to be as colourful as his art, Sidhu says, “Unstruck Melody is centred around the resilience of memory recall, the potentials of sound and the active participation of listening. What’s wonderful is that these are tools we all have, regardless of where we find ourselves and what practices we come from. These are tools we can employ to heal and regenerate our approach to life. They help not only us but also those around us — our family and our community as well. So, this exhibition is really about the sharing, expression and distribution of knowledge with these tools.”

The title of this exhibit is a direct translation of shabad guru — Sikhs believe that it is an internal sound that each one of us is capable of hearing within us through the ritual of active listening. Here, Sidhu and Kailey visually depict the process of accessing this internal “unstruck melody” through the practice of simran (the Sikh meditative practice) which refocuses the mind by eliminating mental chatter. Although the final formal showcase of this idea was only manifested here at the V&A recently, Sidhu and Kailey have been deeply engrossed in discussions about Sikh spirituality ever since they were first introduced by a mutual friend about eight years ago.

About his creative collaboration with Kailey, the Toronto-based artist says, “When you are engaged in an ongoing conversation, at one point it may become urgent and then you are actively required to do something. And that is when you try to execute it because it feels like it’s hyperpresent in the now.”

Sidhu with Deep K. Kailey, the artistic director of Without Shape Without Form.

The interdisciplinary artist is a familiar figure on the cultural scene and has, for a long time, centred his work around the broader aspects of community and mindfulness, as well as more specific exchanges with subjects as diverse as Buddhism, black liberation struggles and the Japanese economic miracle.

While talking to Sidhu, I become cognisant of the contagious calm as well as the unbridled energy that he paradoxically simultaneously radiates when speaking about the references and genesis of his artworks, whose creation he labels as a natural occurrence more than an aha moment. He points out, “It’s not so much a sudden act where there is a set intention of ‘Hey I’m thinking this, you’re thinking this — let’s combine it and make something’. Oftentimes, it materialises without a set intention of sitting down and doing something. It’s more the result of a set of conversations or time spent together finding the wit in things. That’s where the narrative really lies, and sometimes when you share these kinds of commonalities, that in itself can be enough to inspire a collaboration.”

What informs Sidhu’s creative process are a number of mediums and materials. On a routine day, you can find him in his studio making collages, sketching images and photocopying them or faxing them to himself, drawing over them and creating a collage again. “I find that a painting erupts out of deconstruction,” he says. In Unstruck Melody the same school of thought is woven through the large-scale tapestries which contain a myriad of scenery, symbols and signs — many of which are inherently Sikh. I particularly like the largest tapestry that seems to sprawl vertically — it encompasses an explosion of details that would need more than one sitting to soak in. I spot familiar elements: a gurdwara, swords, turbaned men, and locks of hair. About these locks of hair, he elucidates, “The hair is touching the ground – this symbolises the bodily sacrifices of Sikhs. If this exhibition is asking us to recall sounds and remember the way in which we listen, then we should also honour our blood memories. Shahidi refers to our brothers and sisters who have sacrificed their lives. Without that we wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you right now. Our blood memory is a living idea. Our ancestors live through us. So, when we look at materiality, we have all these potentials in the way that we can remember our ancestors. And in this case, hair is such a visceral agent of recall.”

Left to Right: A publication, featuring stylised Gurmukhi script, is available for visitors to take away as mementoes; multimedia artwork from Unstruck Melody.

A publication is available for visitors to take away as a memento of what they’ve just witnessed. It is inscribed with poems, visuals and free-flowing thoughts on simran, sangat (community) and seva (selfless service) and for this, Sidhu has used a stylised version of the Gurmukhi script, the writing system predominantly used in Punjab. “We believe that our knowledge is only accessed through our actions and if we simply refer to it, it is not enough. That is why, sometimes, academia has its limits for us. In the case of the term ‘shabad’ (various compositions by Sikh gurus in Guru Granth Sahib), we are combining the word and the sound. The word is the spoken knowledge; without the sound, there is no experience attached to the knowledge. The opportunity for harmonic convergence is present in abundance everywhere, even in the sharing and application of knowledge by Sikhs. This idea of sound reminds us to experience life, to sing, to smell and to express. We have to merge the experience with the sound. That’s why we say, ‘When the singing stops, knowledge stops’,” says Sidhu.

As our exchange draws to a close, I ask Sidhu to describe Unstruck Melody to someone who may find the practices of simran unfamiliar. Why should they visit? What’s in it for them beyond pretty paintings that might find a fleeting presence on their Instagram Story? He answers after a moment of quiet contemplation: “Unstruck Melody presents the heightening of instincts as a tool for all — that’s what makes it ‘pluriversal’. And the teachings are freely imbibed from the ground up; they do not follow the top-down approach where they are projected onto everyone. In this case, there is no possession of a feeling, practice nor reference to any religion. I believe these [the thoughts and teachings that are expressed through Unstruck Melody] are tools for humanity.”

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