“The body is fluid, it can move. It can go from place to place. It can travel. And this is what he is really excited about. It is being fluid, being like water in the landscape. ” Nikhil Chopra
Indian artist Nikhil Chopra’s live-drawing performances fuse acting, painting and living together, delving into and dissolving traditional boundaries or long held societal notions, resulting in a reflection on life and our existential modus operandi. Shifting between multiple personas, often within a single performance, he questions the mainstream position on issues such as race and gender identities, the mundane and the artistic, or national and personal cultural histories. In these silent but simultaneously outrageous and absurd part-autobiographical performances, we have a glimpse of his inner thoughts and in turn understand ourselves a bit better.
In Inside Out (2012), Nikhil Chopra goes to San Gimignano, Italy, a picturesque medieval town, to do a landscape painting performance for 99 hours, as various personas of Yog Raj Chitrakar; a character loosely based upon his grandfather Yog Raj Chopra, in a pilgrimage of life.
Drawing references from early colonial travelers who drew, etched or painted scenes from distant ‘exotic’ lands, Yog Raj similarly plays the part of the explorer / landscape painter. In producing these ‘trophy’ artworks, these early explorers subconciously laid claim to these lands, as they were the ones that ‘founded’ it (in their own minds). In the same way, Yog Raj is feeling the pride of metaphysical ownership here.
The painting itself, which is done on a large bed-sheet like cloth, doubles here as a picnic spread, when he uses to take a break for lunch.
Built around several tower houses which were the medieval version of a skyscraper, San Gimignano was a famed stopping point for pilgrims to and from the Vatican. A symbol of the wealth and power for the merchant families who built these structures, Yog Raj would take up residence here, displaying some of the regality of the rulers of this place at times, while at other times just plain sleeping.
At still other times, he would play the part of a Tuscan Friar on a pilgrimage, traveling through the place.
Which eventually transformed into a Florencian painter/scribe artisan.
After the painting was completed, Yog Raj decided to wear it, not merely as an exhibition method, but by wearing it as a wedding gown, it became a spectacle with an element of wonder. The wonder, along with the wandering, is that not only has Yog Raj decided to, or felt like becoming a woman that day, but in a traditional wedding procession, there would be a groom, and towns folk looking on would be genuinely happy at the union of two of their own.
But here, people are mostly not towns folk, but tourists who might look incredulously for a moment at the absurdity, before indifferently going back to their own self-absorbed mode of consumptive living.
At the end, a bare foot Yog Raj dons the robes of a hindu monk, somewhat like Gandhi without spectacles but with his whole head painted white, walking amongst the expensive hotel establishments. This was not unlike what Gandhi faced in his day, in gaining a position in the ruling establishment, he chose to live modestly to better connect with his supporters in the quest for independence. In this case, it is a commentary on the ideology of self-absorbed consumption contrasted in favour for the ideology of modesty to achieve the greater good.
The story of Yog Raj Chitrakar, being partly his grandfather’s tale, would not be complete without a visit to Srinagar, Kashmir. Here Yog Raj would walk from his residence to the Lal Chowk square in the city centre and start drawing the clock tower, meeting up with some art students along the way.
Crowds would gather, along with the police.
Soon everybody in the area joins in to watch, and the authorities, weary of an uprising, or losing their jobs from an uprising, call in the military to frisk everyone and sort of ‘encourage’ people to leave. But Yog Raj just keeps on drawing, in an act of defiance, sort of. For a defiant act would have lasted for days, weeks even, but he only stayed for about an hour.
In Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing XI (2010) which was for the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago, featured a semi-naked Yog Raj in a museum gallery drawing directly on the white walls with charcoal. While the random swirls depicted might be somewhat reminiscent of a Pollock, upon closer inspection these seem to be only random scribbles. Its too random for a Pollock. This leads one to think that its actually about recording movement and not creating the illusion of a landscape.
However with the elaborate ritual displayed at the end to wash off the charcoal from his body, perhaps the point of it all is actually a lot more obvious. That the physicality of all that effort of moving the ladder around, drawing on the walls with wide arcing strokes, and solemnly washing it off at the end, represents a kind of ritualized work ethic that Nikhil Chopra’s grandfather adopted as a landscape artist. And this ritual, repeated over and over again, defined his life.
Why he had to be in his underwear the whole time, is baffling. Was it to facilitate the easy washing off of the charcoal from his body? But that doesn’t explain why he didn’t wear clothes during the drawing part, which would have been closer to reality, since I’m sure his grandfather was wearing clothes when he painted. Perhaps the whole act is symbolic, a general representation of something else in his life. That the dirt picked up during the day, from painting or from whatever life throws at one, was ceremonially washed off at night, somehow, and that allowed him to be ‘made whole’ again, which couldn’t be depicted if he was wearing clothes.
The act of walking around in one’s under wear at home, on a hot summer’s night, is an intensely personal gesture. Having the audience watch a lone Chopra performing these rituals in his underwear must have been quite an intimate experience.
In Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing IX (2009), Nikhil Chopra imagines a New York city during the 1920’s and places Yog Raj in that environment. While his grandfather had never been to New York, this is probably a way for him to imagine what he would have done, had he been there. And so, Yog Raj as a wanderer, landscape artist or map-maker goes around the city documenting it, while living in the New Museum gallery space for 5 days.
At one point he appears as a well-heeled, modernist, woman, which is interesting because neither he, his grandfather nor Yog Raj are female, so why does he keep dressing up as one all the time? I first thought it might be just a narcissistic, cross-dressing fetish, but then there might be some deeper meaning to it, as most of his performances feature him as a woman at some point.
In interviews Chopra describes his mother as having a ‘ballsy attitude’, a risk-taker, who separated from his father when he was 17. It was from his mother that he probably inherited his own risk taking attitude to art. So it is not inconceivable that Yog Raj be ‘commissioned’ to explore what his mother would have done, in those circumstances, to ‘feel’ what his mother would have felt.
Using his body as modeling clay to produce multiple sculptures, these characters and personas delve into complex and paradoxical issues, stemming from some of Chopra’s ambiguous life situations. Like how he views his own ‘country’ which is not a country at all, but a militarized zone, tensely administered by 3 countries. This creates complex issues of identity which manifests itself in various ways, such as a whimsical turn-of-the century ‘Victorian-ness’ inspired by the colonial days of the British Raj, and a deep yearning for a childhood displaced by war. Fond memories of his grandfather’s summer cottage in the mountains of Kashmir, and their subsequent ‘exile’, attest to this.
That he’s being an actor to become an artist or how his grandfather (and Mahatma Gandhi) taught him about having an identity, yet he has multiple identities when he’s working depicts part of the paradoxical nature of his works.
As Plato has said the spoken word is more ‘present’ and ‘truer’ (one might have serious doubts about that) than the written one, yet Chopra doesn’t say a word during his performances, preferring to ’embody’ his grandfather, his mother or his paintings. This takes on a spiritual dimension, turning the performances into a meditative ritual and a pilgrimage of life where the journey, not the destination, is the goal.