Yog Raj Chitrakar walks the length of Mumbai, from North to South and back. He walks for two days, carrying charcoal and canvas, perforating the ever-shifting membrane between art and life with every step. Chitrakar, the picture maker, stops now and again to, well, make pictures. Familiar scenes of Chowpatty Beach and the Oval Maidan find alternative expression in his strokes and smudges; a new face of Mumbai is born on his black and white canvas. At night, he sleeps in the waiting rooms of train stations, the rattle of the rails running through his dreams.
Chitrakar is merely one facet of the multidimensional character assumed by Nikhil Chopra, performance artist extraordinaire. The character himself is never the same. In New York City he alternatively prowls the streets in an all-black ensemble of top hat, billowing cape and boots and mulls around his gallery in an austere Gandhian get-up; in Tokyo he is the Queen and the Venice Biennale sees him go from mutton chops and cravat to shoulder length tresses and a thigh-high slit. These transformations are not curtain-call costume changes, but are conducted before his audience. Dress and undress and redress – everything is on view. During his journeys, the artist subjects himself to round-the-clock scrutiny by his audience, both performing and being under their ever-present, silent, Lacanian gaze. Thus Chopra subverts the traditional role of the artist, the picture maker himself becoming the object.
Often the crowds do not gather to watch Chopra’s drawings, impressive as they are as they are, stretched over large expanses of canvas, wall, earth. They come to watch the actor-character paradox unfold itself, rarely taking their eyes of the artist himself. Sometimes he moves achingly slow, taking a full minute to rise off a chair. Other times he whirls around the room, leaping and dipping along with the waves he is scrawling along the four walls of a gallery room.
The wanderer/draughtsman/mapmaker often takes long, winding walks through cities, shaving his eyebrows as he strolls through gentleman/dandy/queen. Through his performances one gets a sense not of the overarching motif of The Journey so much as an intense awareness of the present intersection of time, place and self. Chitrakar pauses along the way to sketch the moment, frozen and captured in charcoal, but these Memory Drawings readily assume the backdrop, surreally static behind the colourful Chopra.
The daily rituals of sleeping, shaving, eating interspersed within the performance bring in a searing sense of reality that blurs the lines between actuality and illusion, a blur that if squinted at long enough would be forced to distil itself down to the question of the very essence of existence. Chitrakar, a fictional character himself, may dress up in garb from another century and surround himself with complimentary props. He may then seat his elaborately decked out self at an elaborately decked out table to sample an equally elaborate meal reminiscent of aristocracies long past, but underneath all the camouflage of civility persists the primary act of man eating.
Chopra allows us to be fellow travelers along his journey to the center of the character as he tests the boundaries of identity. His slow, deliberate movements force the viewer onto the knifepoint of the present moment, pulling them along on his tempestuous voyage across the tightrope that hangs between seeming and being. He squats in the dust to draw into the earth at Lal Chowk in Srinagar as the crowd around draws from him. Somewhere nearby, a train is rattling through a station, as passengers sleep in the waiting room.
Simone Dinshaw is a writer living in Mumbai.
Nikhil Chopra was born in 1974 and is currently moving from Berlin to Goa.