Restaurateur Anant Kaur Sandhu becomes Mrs Singh in Archibald portrait

The iconic 88-year old restaurateur is the subject of Tsering Hannaford’s arresting portrait at this year’s Archibald Prize Exhibition.

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At the Archibald Exhibit, as she sits, regally, in her beautiful blue green costume with gold motifs, her AM honour proudly pinned to her shawl, Anant Kaur Sandhu is a picture of grace and elegance, accomplishment and distinction.

Who is this eminent lady, a member of a tour group asks.

“She’s a well-known restaurateur in Adelaide,” the tour guide replies. “Everyone knows her simply as Mrs Singh. At 88, she’s still active, visiting her kitchens twice a week to oversee the functioning.”

Murmurs of appreciation are heard from the group.

Gazing upon Mrs Singh, artist Tsering Hannaford’s arresting portrait at this year’s Archibald Prize Exhibition, is like a dream come true for me. Having followed Australia’s most prestigious art exhibition for nearly 30 years now, the thought has crossed my mind often about possible Indian links at this annual event.

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Tsering Hannaford’s portrait “Mrs Singh” Photo by AGNSW/Jenni Carter

While there have been Indian-origin artists – the Mumbai-born Nafisa Naomi won the Packer Room Prize in 2010 for her portrait of journalist and commentator Glenn A Baker, and this year Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran presents Hindu iconography in his Multi-limbed Self Portrait – we’ve never had an Indian sitter. Flaunting their Indian identity.

Mrs Singh is paving the way yet again.

While there have been Indian-origin artists – the Mumbai-born Nafisa Naomi won the Packer Room Prize in 2010 for her portrait of journalist and commentator Glenn A Baker, and this year Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran presents Hindu iconography in his Multi-limbed Self Portrait – we’ve never had an Indian sitter. Flaunting their Indian identity.

She’s come a long way since 1980, when she launched her restaurant Jasmin, putting her family recipes to use. Today it is an institution, frequently called ‘Australia’s best Indian restaurant’, its refined take on Indian cuisine having attracted pop stars, politicians and prime ministers.

Equally, as a devout Sikh, Mrs Singh is known for her seva (religious service) to homeless people: her restaurant has been preparing and serving hot and nutritious meals for socially disadvantaged people for nearly twenty years now.

For her service to the restaurant and catering industry and for her philanthropic activities, Mrs Singh was given the AM honour by the Australian government in 2018.

“Everyone in Adelaide knows Mrs Singh,” Tsering Hannaford said when asked why she picked Mrs Singh’s portrait as her Archibald entry.

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Anant Kaur Sandhu

The portrait was commissioned by Mrs Singh’s son Amrik, as an 87th birthday present last year.

“She was reluctant at first,” Amrik revealed. “But after the first sitting, she got right into it! I have no doubt it was because of Tsering and her whole attitude to it – the two got along famously and now often ring each other just to chat.”

The portrait was unveiled on 18 June 2018, Mrs Singh’s birthday, as the extended Singh-Sandhu family gathered to celebrate the matriarch.

“There were plenty of oohs and aahs,” Amrik recounted. “Tsering has done a wonderful job; she’s captured the essence beautifully of the persona that is Mum.”

Mrs Singh has given Tsering her fifth consecutive appearance in the Archibalds as a finalist. (And that’s no mean feat for a young artist who only became professional in 2012. In 2015, she was a finalist alongside her dad, acclaimed artist Robert Hannaford, in what was the first time ever that a father and daughter duo made it to the Archibalds.)

Mrs Singh is one of my best portraits from last year,” Tsering observed.

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Tsering Hannaford at work Photo by Josie Withers

Describing the process, she said, “We had eight sittings at my West Hindmarsh studios in Adelaide. Mrs Singh would come in and stay for three hours. We would do three poses, break for tea, and then do three more poses.”

Did the sessions involve an Indian meal?

“No,” laughed Tsering, “but she’d always bring me something, like short bread biscuits she’d baked, or pickings from her garden.”

Describing the process, Tsering said, “We had eight sittings at my West Hindmarsh studios in Adelaide. Mrs Singh would come in and stay for three hours. We would do three poses, break for tea, and then do three more poses.”

Interestingly, Mrs Singh lent Tsering her salwar kameez, so she would be able to get the pattern just right.

“Tsering paid attention to every stroke,” Mrs Singh revealed. “She was very precise, and would remember every little detail, like the rings I had worn on my fingers at the last sitting. What impressed me also was the calm and patience with which she worked. I admire her for her patience: she was soft and gentle, and took her time. She was caring too: she’d ask often if I was tired, and if I would like a break.”

She loved the final work when she got to see it. She said with characteristic humility, “Initially I thought why are the kids making such a big deal about a portrait? But at the end, I was impressed with Tsering’s work – it came out good, don’t you agree?”

How did she feel when she heard the portrait was to be hung at the Archibalds?

She replied without hesitation, “I felt proud and happy for Tsering. It was her work.”

Mrs Singh is keen to travel to Sydney to see the portrait at the Art Gallery of NSW. “We get it back only after August next year, after it tours the country.”

“I felt proud and happy for Tsering when I heard about the Archibalds. It was her work.” – Mrs Singh

Tsering Hannaford claims portraits are the most cherished part of her practice, even though she is also known for her still life and landscape works. “I feel privileged to meet such an array of interesting people. As I paint from life I take the time to get to know them, their stories and their lives. Mrs Singh has been a lovely lady to meet.”

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Tsering Hannaford Photo by: Josie Withers

Perhaps that’s why she loves the Archibalds. “They are a beautiful celebration of people, in subject, and include a wide range of different styles.”

She agreed that the event this year is particularly diverse, thanks to the hijab (Angus McDonald’s Mariam Veiszadeh), the Buddhist robe (winner Tony Costa’s Lindy Lee), to list a few. “In recent times, the Archibalds are becoming a true reflection of our society.”

Here’s to an even more diverse Archibald Prize Exhibition from here on: we look forward to more salwar kameezes, multiple arms, hijabs, and more body paint.

The Archibald Prize Exhibition is on at the Art Gallery of NSW until 8 Sept.

Also read about the two young artists of Indian origin who have made it to the shortlist at this year’s Young Archie competition at the Art Gallery of NSW, held concurrently with the Archibald Prize exhibition.