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Culture

The body in the gallery

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For art's sake: Performance artist Nikhil Chopra

Performance artists work with their bodies and other daily objects to startle the viewer into seeing the world differently.

Subodh Gupta showering in cowdung in a purification ritual, Nikhil Chopra using his body as a work of art, Anita Dube carving up flesh...Some of Indian art's landmark moments can be traced back to a shack studio in Delhi's then chaotic and now posh Khirkee village where Khoj was born in 1997. An artistled initiative, it became an incubator for experimental art and ideas, also providing the first platform for performance art. "It was challenging. We were working in a new territory," says Pooja Sood, one of the co-founders of the collective. A decade later, Sood looks back at some milestones, and picks out five for TOI-Crest.

Nikhil Chopra

He is one of the most interesting performance artists in India today, excavating memory and history though a new genre called performative practice. Take for instance, his photoperformance Walk to Old Delhi. Dressed in glittering royal regalia, the fictitious character Sir Raja III, winds his way through the narrow streets of Old Delhi towards an Urdu printing press. Over many conversations with the old owner of the press Asif Fehmi, he unearths the hoary past of the Din Duniya House, which houses the press, and which was supposedly built for a truant daughter, and her tutor lover, by a nawab. The press is also notorious for having printed underground material for the 1857 Uprising. As the crowds look on nonplussed, Sir Raja III prints leaflets on the history of the press, hands them out and leaves in silence. A ghost-relic from a colonial past, he leaves behind a memory palimpsest - and many unanswered questions. In the guise of his alter ego Sir Raja, Chopra also asks us to grasp the complexity of his photo-performance - of the self on display while enacting another.

While Chopra's work boldly questions the boundaries between the mediums of drawing, photography, theatre and live art, it is live performance that is central to his practice. As Yog Raj Chitrakar, a character which made its debut in a Khoj residency and subsequently travelled to Kashmir, his actions include the mundane actions of everyday life: bathing, eating, drinking, sleeping and shaving, along with more creative functions such as drawing in charcoal and chalk. The spectacle unfolds in the ritualistic details embedded in these actions. What goes ordinarily unnoticed, if caught, becomes a heightened moment of revelation, mirroring our very own private and social anxieties.

Chopra, who lives in Mumbai, has since resurrected the character of Yog Raj in performances at the Serpentine Gallery, London, and performed to acclaim at Art Basel last month.

Anita Dube

In 2005, Anita Dube's landmark performance, Keywords, created a context in which performativity, critical textual discourse and the histories of the avant-garde were brought to the fore. She used a delicate scalpel to carve provocative words out of buffalo meat. The carved words called for a debate on issues related to art history ('avant-garde') and the transgression of gender and social mores ('prison', 'sexual love'). The videos sensuously capture the sweating ice slabs, the inert meat and the bowl of rose petals in which the artist washes her hands like Lady Macbeth.

Subodh Gupta

One of Subodh Gupta's key works was done at a Khoj workshop in 1997. This proved in fact to be a turning point in his artistic vocabulary and journey. He built a circular enclosure with cowdung bricks, a material that is commonly used in rural India. In doing this, he referred to his own roots in rural Bihar, invoking his experiences growing up as a child in a context entirely different from the metros where the field of art is played out. The monument at once acted as an edifice and a memorial, an elevation of commonplace material and histories which were then transformed into an art object that could be experienced tangibly through the senses of smell, touch and sight.

In 1999, Gupta continued to experiment with local material, this time in a performative mode. He made a paste of mud and cowdung and smeared his body with it and lay down in the sun on a patch of earth covered with cowdung. This performance was later recalled in Pure, a video work in which Gupta played with ideas of purity and pollution and metaphors that invoked his rural roots that were now re-contextualised in an urban context.

Tania Bruguera

When Cuban artist Tania Bruguera participated in the Khoj workshop in 2001 she was surprised at the use (and waste) of the ubiquitous teabag which all the artists used /wasted/ discarded after their multiple cups of tea through the day. She began to collect these teabags and made a cloak out of them and used it in a performance. A few years later she went on to develop a large conceptual work with used teabags at the Venice Biennale.

Song Dong

When Song Dong, an artist from mainland China, first came to Delhi in 1999 he spoke English with the help of a translation device. He used the lack of the spoken word as a conceptual basis for his daily silent performance against a wall in Modinagar. Developing on the notion of communicating through "silence" as did the early Indian Buddhist monks who travelled to China many centuries ago, Song Dong's performance was a gesture of reciprocity that tried to dwell on the meaning of silence as a mode of communication.

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