THE MANY FACES OF NIKHIL CHOPRA

For India’s leading performance artist it’s all about creating eye-catching scenarios and characters, says TANYA MOITRA

  • Published 12.04.15
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Chopra performing in Blackening IV: Bay 19 at Carriageworks, Sydney, in 2012.
Photo: Zan Wimberley; Costume: Loise Braganza

It was an eye-catching performance on the streets and desert of Sharjah in the UAE. Wandering about in all corners of the city was a futuristic-looking cyborg, looking self-assured and gazing about with a look of awe and discovery in his eyes. Of course, it wasn’t a real cyborg. This was a part of Goa-based performance artist Nikhil Chopra’s latest artwork, Use Like Water, commissioned as part of the Sharjah Biennial, the Middle East’s most prestigious art show, which runs until June.

“I wanted to fall in love with Sharjah, and move away from its consumer culture. My research took me to the desert, where the sand dunes resemble waves in the ocean, and I wanted to make drawings where the sea and the desert sort of merged into one,” says Chopra, who headed straight back to his home in Goa after a draining nine days — perhaps one of his longest performances ever.

Chopra divided up his nine days as a cyborg, moving from the desert to the sea and also to an old fort. In the desert he spent his time sketching black-and-white charcoal creations on what looked like Iranian carpets. At the fort
he drew directly onto the walls. Not for a moment did he drop the cyborg persona — even when he was loading his equipment onto a boat and into the other forms of transport.

Shivani Gupta, Costume Design: Loise Braganza,
Image Courtesy: Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, and the artist

India’s foremost practitioner of performance art, Chopra has been making waves across the international circuit with his unique take on modern art. He burst into the spotlight with characters like Sir Raja and Yog Raj Chitrakar in Mumbai about seven years ago and has ever since been globetrotting with his avant-garde work that’s best described as a mix of art and theatrical performances in which he dresses up as one or another personality. His work was on show at Art Dubai last month.

Chopra is better known abroad than in India, and perhaps his unconventional choice of craft has much to do with this. But he explains it as the straightforward act of drawing and performing at the same time — in the process, sweeping himself and the audience away. “I aspire to be moved by the act of making a drawing, and move the audience in that. The live performance is the craft of making the artwork as people watch,” says Chopra.

Perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Drawing is the backbone of what he does, harnessing the mood, aesthetic control, dexterity and composure of a painter. But he turns the act of drawing into a remarkably complex performance, with site-specific installations using props, costumes, lighting and sound and elements of theatre — these are made complete with his incredibly alive drawings and paintings. Chopra calls himself “a painter who makes performance installations”. One critic has described his work as being, “at the boundaries between theatre, performance, live art, painting, photography and sculpture”.

Pic : Shivani Gupta

Chopra was born in Calcutta in 1974, and dreamt of being a theatre director when he was younger, but eventually enrolled for a B.Com degree at Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai. He didn’t enjoy the course and admits he sleepwalked through it. “If I wasn’t an artist I’d probably have become a disgruntled chain-smoking finance professional,” he jokes. So, he changed course sharply and moved to study fine arts at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. He also spent a large chunk of his childhood in the Middle East in the ’80s.

He says that returning to the Middle East for his latest performances was a bittersweet experience. As a child he had found the region and the people not always welcoming and hospitable. But over the last few months he has rediscovered Sharjah and has definitely changed his opinion. “While Dubai is a bit of an air-conditioned bubble, Sharjah is quite the opposite. Its ruler is invested in recording and archiving its history and culture, and it’s very self-aware in a Middle East that’s hypnotised by glass-covered aspiration.”

He adds: “That said, the Middle East has a very rich pool of talent today, and the Arab art scene is extremely vibrant. The people are really cool, and I’m very impressed by the maturity of the work that’s coming out of the region.”

“I carried my interest in theatre into art school and was always looking for ways to merge both forms,” Chopra says. In 1999, he moved to the US to pursue his education, which was where he discovered performance art. The result was that his MA thesis was a live performance — a three-hour long tableau vivant of a Dutch painting dressed as an Indian maharaja.

Most of Chopra’s performances are woven around colonial-era characters like Sir Raja who has reappeared in various costumes and situations. Sir Raja has appeared variously since 2002 at a table at the end of a 350-ft-long red carpet and also in black and white photographs that show him on horseback surveying his estate. In 2005 Chopra performed The Death of Sir Raja, which showed the nobleman lying surrounded by jewels, velvet drapes and Oriental rugs.

Another of Chopra’s characters, Yog Raj Chitrakar, has made appearances in shows in places as far apart as Oslo, Tokyo, Brussels, Venice, New York and Chicago — and of course, Delhi and Mumbai.

Pic : Justin Meekel

“I think excellence of any kind inspires me,” says Chopra. “Art history, too, has a very strong impact on what
I do. It is the benchmark of excellence that I follow. Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Mirza Ghalib, Jean-Paul Sartre and Gandhi influence my work — especially Gandhi. It was his understanding of his body and the performance of being ‘Indian’ that led us to freedom. Nobody really knew what Indian was before he came along,” he adds. Another influence is Marina Abramovic, one of the world’s leading performance artists.

What’s fascinating is how Chopra manages to weave the everyday into seminal performances, which are largely improvised. “Everything that’s a part of my usual routine is built into my performance be it naps, meals or toilet breaks,” Chopra says. “I make sure I eat well, especially a lot of dry fruits and energy bars. When I’m sleepy I take a nap, when I want tea I make myself some.”

Take a look at how Yog Raj Chitrakar (who’s based very loosely on Chopra’s grandfather) resurfaces in different parts of the world. In Mumbai in 2010 he set out from a ground in Bandra where he shaved his head and then, with two days of supplies in a backpack, set off to walk from one end of Mumbai to the other and back. He stopped at different points in the city and drew charcoal sketches. On another occasion in Brussels Chitrakar climbed to a vantage point in the city’s Supreme Court and drew sketches of the city.

It’s only the drawings that Chopra practises passionately during the research and preparation phase. “It’s not exactly spontaneous. I have to prepare myself a lot to draw something. It’s a process and I must familiarise my-self with the context to create them,” he says.

Artwork from Chopra’s La Perle Noir series made with charcoal on sandpaper
Courtesy: Chatterjee & Lal

Considering the intensity of each performance, winding down is just as important to Chopra as immersing himself in art. “It can get exhausting, which is when I tend of think of home in Goa and unwinding.” Cut off from the outside world, he relaxes in the company of friends, enjoying barbecues, picnics, movies and television shows like Breaking Bad. “Goa has that spirit,” he says.

Chopra has found great peace in life in the paradise state, where he lives in a massive house with his wife and two kids. “My life and art are intertwined in this 200-year-old house,” he smiles, adding emphatically that he isn’t really a corner-in-a-studio kind of person. “I need space to work, to imagine and to store my things.”

Chopra acting out his critically acclaimed series La Perle Noir at Aspinwall House at the Kochi Biennale in 2014
Photo: Shivani Gupta; Costume Design: Loise Braganza; Image Courtesy: Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, and the artist

The artist also works out of a guest house in Goa that he shares with a French artist, where he organises various art studios, hosting artists from all over the country and opening up the space for regular viewings to the public for free. They make their money only out of selling sandwiches and beer.

Next, Chopra is headed to the 12th Bienal de La Habana in Cuba to act out a new commission as a part of his critically acclaimed series called La Perle Noir. Each piece comments on people of colour, the lives they lead, and their exceptional talent. He will also attend a two-week artist’s residency in Canada with an independent curator alongside his curating responsibilities for the 2016 Dhaka Art Summit’s performance art category. But no matter where he goes it will always be about mesmerising theatrics.

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