11 Questions With : Nikhil Chopra, Performance artist
Updated on: 29 Jun 2016
* 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.
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?