Julie Potter on Nikhil Chopra

Tina Lange’s photograph of Nikhil Chopra as Yog Raj Chitrakar documents part of Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing IX, a 72 hour performance and perpetually transforming work unfolding November 4-8, 2009 in the gallery at the New Museum in New York, as well as on the streets of the city including Lower Manhattan, Chinatown and eventually Ellis Island. Curated by Eungie Joo for Performa 2009, with costumes by Loise Braganza, Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing IX, draws inspiration from the 1920’s and New York City’s changing role in history between two world wars, influenced by immigration, architecture and labor.

The semi-autobiographical character of Yog Raj Chitrakar (Chitrakar translates as picture-maker) is a draughtsman or landscape painter who chronicles the world in which we live during his expeditions. The character is loosely based on Chopra’s grandfather, Yog Raj Chopra, who was a landscape painter in Kashmir. Chopra’s embodiment of multiple personae through the character Yog Raj Chitrakar explores identity formation, incorporating additional roles of soldier, prisoner, dandy and queen.

With live performance at the center of his work, the artist transfers what he refers to in his artist statement as “an immediacy that cannot be accessed in rehearsed acts.” Chopra employs silence as a strategy of separation from the viewer, however his watching back and proximity to onlookers make clear that the audience sharing time and place become part of the long durational events occurring in slow segments. His deliberate execution of tasks suggests a ritualization of quotidian behavior – dressing, washing, and shaving. In addition, Chopra’s costumes continue the creation of his narrative and identity, with top hats, tailcoats and other nineteenth century Victorian elements juxtaposed with the contemporary landscape in which he performs. The accretion of identities combines family background, personal history and everyday life.

Furthermore, the artist’s creation of large charcoal drawings during the performance extends the theatricality. A developing set within gallery walls and in outdoor surroundings, the drawings make possible a multiplicity of places and times in which the performance can be located. The drawings remain as residue of the performance supporting the character Yog Raj Chitrakar as draughtsman and call into question the role of the art object. To view photographs of the Chopra’s character in front of his massive drawings can additionally obscure the artist’s true physical surroundings during the performance, making him appear quite alone. Chopra’s embodied performance and storytelling make visible the dynamic and unsteady nature of identity.

Mumbai-based Chopra navigates between theater, performance, painting, photography and sculpture. Born in Kolkata, the artist studied at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda from 1997-99 and completed his BFA at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Baltimore in 2001. He received his MFA in painting at Ohio State University in 2003.