Nikhil Chopra

If you had met Nikhil Chopra at New York’s New Museum, disguised as a 1920s flapper for his Performa 09 piece Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing IX, you would not have recognized him in Mumbai. Chopra’s latest performance here, Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing X, lasted a strenuous forty-eight hours and afforded no glamorous gender bending. In keeping with his other ventures, Chopra explored the city. But unlike previous works, this one left him much the worse for wear.

Here, Chopra as “Yog Raj Chitrakar”—dressed in fawn plus fours and equipped with a rucksack stuffed with provisions—set off from the prosperous suburb of Bandra to the less posh sections of South Mumbai accompanied by an “audience” of critics, collectors, and his gallerists as well as family, friends, and curious passersby. Filing past the sleepy little houses of Sherley Village, we entered the hustle and bustle of Mumbai Central, a massive railway station used by the city’s teeming millions. Chopra’s first night was the most eventful: Trying to sleep on the station’s platform, he was unceremoniously evicted by policemen primed to get rid of suspicious persons. As a silent apparition—Chopra never speaks when “in character”—he was considered just that, despite the loud protestations of his loyal followers. The second day saw Chitrakar wearily walking past the soaring Gothic Revival architecture of Victoria Terminus and spending a lazy afternoon in the leafy environs of Oval Maidan—a cricket field used by schoolboys and street urchins alike. Chitrakar’s entourage was forced to follow his whims and participate in his travails.

In fact, Yog Raj Chitrakar is just one of Chopra’s avatars. Others include a crinoline-skirted Victorian empress and a maharaja in velvet-and-gold regalia; in recent performances we have seen him begin as a manly “native” and end up as a flirtatious female. But Yog Raj is arguably the most important of these characters, and is based on Chopra’s paternal grandfather, who was a landowner in Kashmir and a gentleman landscape artist. For Chopra, Chitrakar (which in West Bengali means “painter”) provides a gateway to private and cultural memories. At Oval Maidan, Yog Raj made a charcoal drawing of the ornate colonial architecture that speckles the city’s skyline. Sprawled on a vast canvas, resembling a slightly grubby gentleman in a “picnic painting,” he looked as much like something out of a nineteenth-century canvas as the sooty relics he sketched. Which left us “viewers” in a precarious position: Were we part of the picture? Or were we inappropriately dressed figures in a pseudo-Dickensian drama we never quite understood?

Yet for all Yog Raj Chitrakar’s previous whimsy—he has appeared in other projects as a Victorian dandy—he was a changed man here. No sumptuous candlelit dinners were his lot this time. A hungry vagrant—slightly Gandhi-like, with his shaved head and glinting wireframed spectacles—he grappled with many an indignity. Chopra admits that “my assumption that Mumbai is a city with public space was absolutely wrong. Everywhere I went I was told that I was not supposed to be there.”

Chopra’s spectators did not escape unscathed, either. Memory Drawing X slyly overturned something we (somewhat guiltily) value at art shows: a respite from Mumbai’s sweaty squalor. Instead, Chopra forced us to encounter the city’s heat and dust and to justify our existence as the so-called art world. It was up to us, after all, to attempt to convince irate cops (however fruitlessly) that this “harmless artist” should be allowed to rest unmolested at an overcrowded train station. Geographically, the performance ended where it began: Bandra. But the journey left us irrevocably altered; somewhere along the way the roles of artist and audience, watcher and watched, had been surreptitiously swapped.

Zehra Jumabhoy