Nikhil Chopra’s biennale performance references Kochi’s trading history
While most of the artists at Kochi Murizis Biennale (KMB) were racing against the clock to meet the deadline for the global art festival that began on December 12, Nikhil Chopra was sitting around his venue—relaxed with a roll-up. “My work starts only after the biennale starts,” joked the Goa-based artist about his 52-hour continuous performance.
The 40-year-old may sound casual in his talk, but Chopra’s work is turning out to be one of the most curious and even provocative ones at the ongoing 108-day extravaganza centred around suburban Fort Kochi. The visitors at the main venue seemed to have sensed it, for his performance room at the colonial Aspinwall House has people gathering in big numbers right from its start early Saturday evening.
From then, Chopra’s work titled Le Perle Noire: Le Marais, is on. A native of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh upcountry, his characters are generally built around India’s colonial past. Here in this ancient coastal city, he took on the persona of the Black Pearl who inhabits a cell and, on the walls, draws focally the Periyar—Kerala’s longest river flowing from east to west along the middle of the slender state.
On Sunday, people looked in through the arched windows and, on seeing Chopra perform, invariably moved into his room. There, the artist continued his show that had begun after he slowly stripped to his underwear, having blackened his face and body before painting the walls dark. For the 52 hours of his performance in the cell, he would as well eat and rest—even sleep, which is part of the show.
The performance will culminated on Monday evening with a musical performance by a two-member band of vocals and harmonium.
“I have been mulling over the idea of what I would do if I were invited to the biennale,” said Chopra, who graduated from Faculty of Fine Arts at Baroda’s M S University and went on to study in Ohio, USA. “This is India’s premier art event and I was immediately excited to be a part of it.”
In fact, Chopra’s almost entire body of work fits in perfectly with Jitish Kallat’s curatorial theme of ‘Whorled Explorations’ which essentially looks back at Kochi’s colonial history starting with maritime trading. To be precise, Chopra’s “fictionalised historical characters are built with the idea of peeling through many layers of political and personal history”. The Black Pearl is a reference to pepper and the region’s spice trading past.
Chopra notes that the Black Pearl is both ruler and subject; monster and angel. “He is armoured, yet defeated—and is also a metaphor for that ubiquitous spice which has drawn traders to the Malabar Coast for long,” he adds.
Art experts say it is a bold performance that has been brought to conservative Kerala, even as a down-to-earth Chopra is unfazed. “My favourite audiences are those who are unaware of gallery art and comes to it with curiosity and no preconceived notions,” he said before the start of the show. “I want to be able to talk to women, children…and touch everyone. I want it to be a democratic experience. But I expect the audience to engage repeatedly. You don’t get anything from one viewing and just as I do, the audience too should push limits.”