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'Unstruck Melody' at London Design Festival 2023 explores the wisdom of 'Sikhi'

Hosted at the V&A, Unstruck Melody by curator Deep K Kailey presents works by Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu, that radiate with the values of Sikh teachings.

by Sakhi SobtiPublished on : Sep 18, 2023

Unstruck Melody, which has been curated by Deep K Kailey, art director of UK-based and volunteer-led arts organisation Without Shape Without Form (WSWF), in collaboration with British-born Canadian artist Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu, is an exhibition that navigates the realm of self-discovery through the teachings of Sikhism, or as the artist-curator duo prefers to identify it, 'Sikhi'. This arises from a conscious attempt to reinforce that 'Sikh' means to be a student, and is a practice of continuous spiritual study, rather than one of static religious belief, or a promotion of anachronistic ideologies. The title Unstruck Melody is a direct English translation of AnhadShabad or ShabadGuru, an internal sound that is within every human being, and may be heard through the mind via deep listening, which opens access to sagacious insights. The exhibition has been commissioned and produced for the ongoing London Design Festival 2023 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, and is on view from September 16 to October 15, 2023.

Exhibition view of Unstruck Melody, for London Design Festival 2023 at V&A | London Design Festival | Unstruck Melody | Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Unstruck Melody for London Design Festival 2023 at V&A Image: Courtesy of STIR

The etymology of 'religion' traces back to the Latin word 'religare,' which refers to binding together. This contradicts religious movements in the modern world as well as in the past, where religion has often been an agent of a clash between civilisations and is regarded with ever less conviction in terms of its advocacy for a secular world. Against this perennial reality, the exhibition is a reminder that specific religious offerings facilitate a sense of wisdom that springs from the foundations of an emotionally sculpted spirituality. This sagacity cannot be attained directly through modern sciences or philosophy, for the inability of these fields to make an individual feel one with the world amidst the grander scheme of things.

Artist Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu and Curator DeepK Kailey speaking to the audience at the preview of Unstruck Melody, 2023 at V&A | London Design Festival | Unstruck Melody | Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu | STIRworld
Artist Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu and Curator Deep K Kailey speaking to the audience at the preview of Unstruck Melody at V&A Image: Courtesy of STIR

At Unstruck Melody, we see a conscious effort by the volunteer-led arts organisation Without Shape Without Form (WSWF) to facilitate dialogue around spirituality and mental health through a contemporary manifestation of Sikh teachings. Here, art becomes a mode of the creative value system to democratise the ideas that support Sikhi's ability to nurture personal growth. There is often an interpretation of art as a contemporary mode of spirituality; this notion stems from the liminality evoked by entering spaces adorned with art; a realm of visually manifested concepts and ideas, which is to be noted as an external process. In a conversation with STIR, Kailey clarifies the distinction between art and spirituality, "One (art) is the transfer of knowledge, and the other (spirituality) is an actual internal practice."

Exhibition view of Medicine, for a Nightmare at Unstruck Melody, 2023 | London Design Festival | Unstruck Melody | Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Medicine, for a Nightmare at Unstruck Melody, Image: Courtesy of Without Shape Without Form (WSWF)

Unstruck Melody treats audiences to tapestries and video installations rich with symbolism meant to be interpreted as visual metaphors for Sikhi. At the same time, the Sikh faith itself eschews direct pictorial representations of the formless divine and its all-encompassing intangibility, far beyond that which may ever be represented by human hands. In an interview with STIR, Sidhu speaks about the textile art tapestry titled Medicine, for a Nightmare, an iconological representation of Seva, which translates to selfless service at a gurdwara (Sikhs' place of worship). Such acts of service are performed out of devotion to other humans, the community, and society without any expectation of repayment.

Sidhu further adds that the visual representation in his artworks embodies the intentions behind the principles of Sikhi, which upholds spirituality above all else. He refers to this process as "spiritual ascension", the sensation of transcendence that stems from our meditative sensibilities to hear, ideate, and visualise the cosmic, the unseen. This ability paired with the guidance of Sikhi's ideas and principles becomes a symbolic anchor to our reality, facilitating a sense of "responsibility to ourselves and all those around us. We are not to receive such knowledge, go into caves and be isolated, or claim to be in tune and in touch with many techniques that make us superior. If we are to receive such knowledge, we are to take that knowledge and activate it, not just have spirituality, but have a lived spirituality." It is this notion that Sidhu successfully depicts in his art installations, referring to it as "a visual grammar for things that are cosmic and at the same time based on location, based on ideas that are both seen and unseen."

Tapestry Installation at Unstruck Melody, 2023, textile art installation, tapestry | London Design Festival | Unstruck Melody | Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu | STIRworld
Curator Deep K Kailey and artist Nirbhai (Nep) Singh SidhuImage: Courtesy of STIR

In the newly commissioned film, Sidhu and Kailey discuss ideas around Sikh teachings, such as simran, a meditative practice of devotion, which fosters an imagination of the divine, the human idol and ideal, bridging the distance between us and our capacity to become our enhanced selves. seva, as mentioned above, is the selfless service for others, undertaken to build a sense of community and oneness. It is accompanied bysangat, which is a practice of cultivating a support system to facilitate mutual commitment and respect.

Nirbhai (Nep) Singh Sidhu and Deep K Kailey in conversation with STIR Video: Courtesy of STIR

Unstruck Melody is a thoughtful collaboration between art and spirituality, and Sidhu and Kailey's oeuvre is a testament to Sikhi's practice, and provide inspiration to always perceive oneself as a student of the world we inhabit. As an artistic offering, the exhibition encourages us to ponder cultural patterns, aesthetic practices, metaphysical viewpoints, and ethical paradigms, that are all aimed at shaping society's discourse with an inner awareness and devotion to others, sans discrimination.

The London Design Festival is back! In its 21st edition, the faceted fair adorns London with installations, exhibitions, and talks from major design districts including Shoreditch Design Triangle, Greenwich Peninsula, Brompton, Design London, Clerkenwell Design Trail, Mayfair, Bankside, King's Cross, and more. Click here to explore STIR’s highlights from the London Design Festival 2023.

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