Nikhil Chopra: The chameleon-like performance artist

  • Aasheesh Sharma
  • Updated: Jun 26, 2016 12:44 IST
Performance artist Nikhil Chopra takes on a feminine avatar for his work Yog Raj Chitrakar Memory Drawing IX, digital photograph on archival paper (Picture courtesy: The artist and Chatterjee and Lal)

* At the Havana biennale in 2015, Nikhil Chopra’s performance involved living in a cage, placed in the middle of a busy plaza, for 60 hours. For close to three days, he was making drawings, dressed as a 1950s American woman of colour, before hacksawing his way out of the cage.

* In 2007, dressed as a dandy, a character based on his grandfather, he walked to the Lal Chowk in Srinagar, drawing houses on the road.

* In 2009, during a 48-hour-long performance at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Chopra lived in the tower at Arsenale, eating, sleeping and working on a life-size charcoal painting

* But the eclectic range of Chopra’s multiple personalities came to light during a performance in Manchester’s the Whitworth Art Gallery in 2009. Over the 17-day exhibition called Marina Abramovic Presents, a chameleon-like Chopra went from being a loin-cloth wearing native eating chocolate cake, to a 19th Century fictional Maharaja with a colonial hangover, to a Victorian dandy donning tailored suits, culminating with the Queen on the final afternoon, clad in wide-hooped frilly skirts

One of the few Indian performance artists recognised abroad, Chopra draws hugely on anti-colonialism and family history, two themes that recurring in his work. Sharing the stage with German performance artist Ray Langenbach at the India Art Fair 2016’s Speakers’ Forum, the shape-shifting, gender bending artist discussed his art practice with HT Brunch. Excerpts:

You keep appearing in different avatars. How do you decide on which Nikhil Chopra will emerge in which part of the world?

I get a lot of my clues from the site that I am working in, because I think it is really important not just to question who I am as a performer in terms of my identity and how to problematise that identity, but I am also interested in where I am. Where I am, frames who I am. Who I am in Europe is very different from who I am in India. Not that my mannerisms or what I do changes, but how what I do is perceived, changes.

Nikhil Chopra, one of the best known Indian performance artists in the world, makes a statement by drawing at Srinagar’s iconic Lal Chowk , dressed as a dandy for his series (Photo courtesy: The artist)

How much does personal history and anti-colonialism influence your long-durational works?

Being born in a formerly colonised country, I am very aware of my family history. For the performance Memory Drawings, an exploration of colonial history, I assumed the persona of Yog Raj Chitrakar. My grandparents from my father’s side of the family were part of the Kashmir elite. They were Hindu Punjabis, recruited in the middle of the 1800s to serve the Maharaja. They were the educated class in Kashmir. But the educated class were also the oppressors. And since Kashmir was not British, the Indians, the so-called ruling class of Kashmir, took on the role of the Brits and became the colonisers who aspired to be British and sahebs. That informed me but it also troubled me as a kid.

That was the genesis of the ‘Sir Raja’ series of performances. The inspiration for Yograj Chitrakar, my fictional persona, came from my grandfather who was called Yograj Chopra. My grandfather studied at the Goldsmith College of Art as a young man.

He came back to India and ran a printing press in Calcutta for many years, where I was born. His failed business venture turned him into a Sunday artist, as opposed to an artist with a serious engagement with art. In a way, I feel I am completing my grandfather’s story, carrying the legacy of making pictures and images.

My parents were separated when I was 17 and my time was mostly spent with my father, but over the past five years I have become very aware of my mother’s role in my life. Being from a migrant family from Delhi during Partition, gave my mother this kind of bold, ballsy attitude. She still is a bit of a risk-taker. I look back at the mistakes generations before me have made and in a sense I want to rectify those and rethink, rewrite and reclaim history.

Performance is still not perceived as a serious art by many. Do you think the perception gap between the visual arts and performance arts is justified?

My work is all about bridging that gap. I try to find a place where visual art and performance, painting and theatre meet. In a sense, my life mission is demystifying the whole relationship with body and performance that is still shrouded in a bit of mystery.

I do workshops at an art space in Goa, where I invite artists from all over the world to come together and make new work and discuss new approaches to performance and to a great extent demystify the art process. It takes the same amount of will, desire, passion and tenacity to make a performance as it does to make a painting. Performance is a radical art form that does not need the infrastructure or art of theatre. But it has gained a rigour and sophistication over the last few years.

Why do most of your performances run into many days and countless hours?

Long durational performances have a 50-year-long history. People like [Taiwanese-American artist] Tehching Hsieh, a pioneer of durational performance art and Marina Abramovic have been hugely inspirational. I cannot possibly repeat the kind of grounds they’ve broken, but I want to look at what is it that a long duration of time achieves and what it does to the body.

I think time has a way to sculpt consciousness and a way to sculpt the body as well. Ten years back I had a lot more hair on my head. It is time sculpting us. Let’s not forget that both Hsieh and Abramovic are hugely influenced by the eastern philosophy of endurance. Denial is not a river that runs in Egypt. In eastern philosophies, at least the ones that I grew up with, denial is actually a weapon that we use.

You rate Mahatma Gandhi as a big influence on your art…

The Mahatma is a huge influence on me, as much as Marina Abramovic is. The Mahatma’s identity is sculpted I think. His dhoti, his bald head, his glasses, his chappals, his lifestyle, the way he lived, was extremely deliberate. When I think about that kind of deliberation, I am also thinking about performance. In a way, here’s a man who takes performance, let’s not call it art, to empower and liberate a nation.

How does he do that? By putting his own body on the line, the fasting, the silence, the imprisonment, the beatings, all of these things that the body took, became in a sense, not just part of the memory of the body that is experiencing this pain, but also part of the memory of the body that is inducing that pain. Here is how performance generates performance. Gandhi is an extremely crucial example for me, because this man was able to mobilise a nation, with persona, his costume, his body, his endurance and his will

The greatest lesson that the Mahatma’s life which permeates your performance?

That there is no freedom, unless that freedom liberates others. Who gives a shit if I go to my studio and make the most fabulous experience with myself, making a painting? May be painting has liberated millions of people. But performance has a very immediate kind of gratification. There is an urgency which performance expresses that I find very universal. I am not interested in an Indian experience, a European or American experience.

I am interested in the human experience. What it is that runs through each and every human being and threads us all together as this garland that we call humanity. Hunger, thirst, beauty, pain, passion, love, hatred, fatigue, or vulnerability: I think we are all able to connect with these, without nationality, without religion, without these large divisions that the world has divided itself into. My work is about blurring lines, boundaries and genres to find a place that we all have in common.

Your body is your studio. How does the mistrust and paranoia of present-day public spaces affect your art practice?

There is an immense amount of mistrust in today’s world, where we don’t feel safe anymore in public spaces. But all these elements, the day, the night, the cold, the rain, the thunderstorm, the sunshine, the heat, the urban landscape, the chaos in Metros, the traffic, one incorporates them into the performance. That paranoia, that uncertainty, that mistrust, that tension becomes a part of the work. A new challenge is to craft that engagement that a paranoid city has with a fleeting artwork.

Are you trained as an actor?

Not rigorously, but I have done a lot of theatre as an actor during art school in Baroda and in a semi-professional theatre company. While doing my Masters’ at the Ohio State University, I was taking a lot of classes in the theatre department, learning theatre direction, lighting, set design, costume. I auditioned for a lot of open calls. Theatre played an important role but in a sense at that moment seemed separate from the visual arts for me.

Performance artist Nikhil Chopra during the India Art Fair in New Delhi (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

How different is a shape-shifting, gender bending chameleon when he is not performing?

(Laughs) I have what I call the classic recognition complex. Since I am a chameleon, because there are so many shades in which I look, often in art circuits, in familiar scenarios, people won’t recognise me, because I look completely different from the last time they saw me. It gives me a kick in two ways. One, it gives me a kick to say: ‘Oh my gosh! you don’t remember me?’ So there’s a little bit of heartbreak! The second kick that I actually enjoy is the feeling that I am not committed to one look or one way of being. I want to constantly keep redefining who I am. In real life, I have a lot of consistencies. I am married. I have a secure, very steady, family life with two children and a studio space in Goa. I’ve found refuge, peace and stability in Goa. There is a daily-ness to life. But the performance space allows me to flip all that. The security that I find at home allows me to take the risks I can.

In a show, you had a Japanese artist destroying your family photographs. Are you criticised for trying to shock the audience?

What I didn’t say was that they were coloured Xeroxes of my old photographs! The performance was an attempt to problematise my obsession with beauty. Is the grotesque beautiful as well? Is there something beautiful in defacing something, in remaking something and that was really great for me. I was able to break out from my very comfortable zone of making beautiful images.

I am not interested in shock value at all. I am interested in surprise value. I am interested in the magic in watching an image come to life. Watching a painter make a painting of someone is like watching a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat. There is a spectacle there.

And what about the times when you’ve turned into a Victorian queen?

I turned into a queen and in the same performance, I felt like a streetwalker. Dressed in a short skirt and wearing a skanky wig, I felt looked at, peered at. That’s the moment when I felt very uncomfortable and I jumped into a taxi and the performance ended there. To travel from the Mahatma to the whore, is the extent of the human experience, in a way, or at least is a microcosm of that in a performance.


The many faces of Nikhil Chopra

• In Blackening II (Berlin, 2013). For five hours, without clothes, his eyes covered with duct tape, Chopra made drawings on the walls with charcoal and white chalk, in the presence of the unseen audience

Coal on Cotton, at the Manchester International Festival (2013), was a 65-hour-long performance showcasing a giant charcoal-panorama executed in successive persona as farmer, textile worker and industrial magnate

• For La Perle Noire at the 12th Havana Biennial (2015) where, locked inside a cage for three days, Chopra painted what was in view from the cage, before breaking free


Lanka’s Iron Man: Bandu Manamperi

Lankan performance artist Bandu Manamperi irons his shirt in front of a government building (Photo courtesy: The artist)

Lanka’s Iron Man

Bandu Manamperi (above), one of the foremost performance artists and sculptors in Sri Lanka, is known for making subtle statements on gender and politics.

In 2001, right after his honeymoon, he went to an art camp and created an artwork that questioned the ritual of checking the virginity of a newly-wed bride.

At the India Art Fair 2016, Manamperi’s performance involved using an ironing board. Clad in briefs, he used the steam iron to “iron out” the creases on his shirt and trousers in front of the audience. He then proceededed to wear his clothes and end his performance. “In the Lankan society, after the war on the LTTE, everything is being beautified and everybody is busy ironing out the creases on the collective psyche. Outwardly, everything is fine but on the inside the war is far from over,” he remarks.

In Colombo, the site for his performance is in front of colonial-era government buildings such as the National Independent Square. “The colonists left the subcontinent years ago, but we seem to be caught in a time warp. By putting my body in a colonial space, I am making a statement against the mindset.”

From HT Brunch, June 26, 2016

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