This statement talks about my engagement as a practicing artist with live art and performance. I address how my work draws on both personal and collective cultural history to examine, amongst other things, the questions of identity, the role of autobiography, and the politics of posing and self-portraiture. I also discuss the process of transformation as it is consciously and physically experienced and represented in my practice through performance. And finally I look at the form and aesthetic of my work, its relationship to site and location, the significance of duration and the task of making charcoal drawings.
As a performer, whose practice emerges from the visual arts, every site offers a range of possibilities in terms of content material, backdrops, contexts and audiences. That these are variable and subjective in their essence, to time, place and history, lend to each performance an immediacy that cannot be accessed in rehearsed acts. In other words, the work is site-specific. City lights, architecture and landscape, the weather, the commotion and chaos of contemporary metropolitan life, evidence of mental and physical stress, articulations of cultural collective histories and memories, all come together in the gestalt that creates the performative space.
The characters of my performances so far, Sir Raja, Yog Raj Chitrakar, and the most recently staged Drum Soloist, have been semi-autobiographical. While Sir Raja is the quintessential privileged anglicized Indian prince or king quite literally out early portrait photography, Yog Raj Chitrakar (Chitrakar translates as picture-maker in Hindi) is a Victorian/turn of the century draughtsman or landscape painter, who goes on expeditions as an explorer making chronicles of the world we live in. He uses drawing as a tool to make documents. The character is loosely based on my grandfather, Yog Raj Chopra, who, spent his early college years in England and Germany in the 1930’s, and who was in his later life a passionate, yet inconsequential, landscape painter who spent his 50s and 60s in Kashmir recording in paint the grandeur of the Valley. My character, Yog Raj Chitrakar, emerged as a means to critically examine and represent a particular kind of post-colonial Indian subjectivity represented in his narratives – hung over by the nostalgia for the British Raj yet reeling in the success of the Indian freedom struggle. My grandfather’s paintings adorned the walls of our family home and I grew up gazing at them for hours. They evoked a deep nostalgia for a place that became inaccessible to us after 1989, when the Kashmiri Separatist movement gained momentum. His paintings were like windows to a time when I spent the summers with my grandparents in their cottage by a stream flanked on all sides by pristine Himalyan Mountains.
In my performances, the costuming, and the selection and installation of props provide clues to the world conjured up by the character. Dressed variously in Nineteenth Century Victorian top hats, tailcoats, crinoline dresses, skin-tight body suites and flapper dresses, the characters haunt the streets, busy market squares, train stations, parks as also the confines of buildings and art galleries. Sometimes a performance in an enclosed gallery space might spill over onto the streets if my character decides to exit and go for a walk. There have also been times when performances have begun and ended in the street. Audiences follow me on my journeys or meet me at pre-decided venues (that had been indicated on handed-out maps) only to watch me drawing or resting. The audience is then part of the exercise of locating the performance in the city and in turn locating themselves.
The Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing series has traveled to the cities of Oslo, Tokyo, Yokohoma, Brussels, Venice, New York City, Chicago, London, Manchester, Mumbai, Delhi, and Srinagar, so far. In each case the drawing has taken on new functions and meanings. In Yog Raj Chitrakar Memory Drawing XI (February 2010), at the Museum of Contemorary Art in Chicago, Yog Raj was confined to the gallery indoors, he was seen drawing directly on the walls in broad swinging motions, made largely with the intention to record movement rather than to create the illusion of a landscape. He blackened the room and also his entire body with copious amounts of charcoal dust, which flew around and settled on everything.
Props comprise of objects set-up to resemble still-life painting sets, and are mainly used as action-props. Sourced from old markets, antique shops and flea markets the objects bring with them their own histories as they stand the test of time. They could consist of a chair at a dining table laden with food, bedding, costumes wrapped in neatly made packages, buckets of water, basin, soap, shaving kit, towels, baskets of charcoal and yards of unbleached cotton fabric amongst other things.
Each performance unfolds in long-durational ‘happenings’ done over the course of one-day or several, in slow, deliberated, ritualized movements. Everyday actions like washing, eating, shaving, sleeping, and dressing, form the script of the performances whose central and only character, is often seen creating a large drawing on canvas of urban vistas in his immediate environment. Each action or pause is pregnant with anticipation that a transformation will take place, when for instance the bearded character picks up a razor to shave off only part of his beard to sport a ‘lamb-chops’ moustache, or to tonsure his head, as the case may be, or when a charcoal covered Yog Raj sits by his bucket to wash. The act of shaving the head as a ritual is often associated with the death of immediate family. It is a symbolic, spiritual, act of catharsis that suggests the shedding of the ego. As a gesture it talks to me of death and birth simultaneously. In aesthetically bringing together the rituals of the everyday, with those of the spiritual, I am attempting to point at our contemporary culture of excess as also to the labour with which we as a human race continue to survive the crisises of our own making.
The challenge for an audience is to sustain the long duration of the work: its slow gestures and unfolding narrative, as they watch me, or gaze at me through a camera lens, maintain safe non-intrusive distance so as to not disturb my ‘private’ dinner, lounge, wash or sleep time. I watch them back, negotiating their space around me. In a performance I voluntarily resign myself to the solitary world that my character inhabits, even as I am continuously being watched and gazed at. Live art performance allows me to experience my immediate world viscerally, in the here-and-now, and engage my muscles and mind in alternative ways.
For Yog Raj Chitrakar I drew references from the tales and works of early colonial travelers who made drawings, serigraphs and etchings of ‘far flung’ exoticized landscapes. The act of capturing or representing these scenes became a means to exercise control and claim ownership over these places. For Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing VI, May 2009, at the kunstenfestivaldesarts 09, a theater festival in Brussels, Yog Raj resided at Les Brigittines, a baroque chapel now converted to a theater, for 96 hours. Every morning he would exit the Chapel. He perched himself high at the Palais du Justice, the Supreme Court looking down at the city. From here the view of the city is iconic. He spent two days drawing on canvas the panorama of the city in two halves. I immediately made analogies to a city that is culturally and politically divided, the French on one side and the Flemish on the other. Yog Raj would return to the Chapel in the evening where he would eat and rest but also sew the 2 halves of the city together to make one large 16 meters panoramic drawing of the city. The drawing, hung on the chapel walls, functioned as the idealized studio backdrop against which Yog Raj struck a final pose, this time to resemble a Greek hairless goddess in almost direct reference to Neo-Classical architecture, painting and sculpture, a place where Brussels’ identity is rooted.
In another case, Yog Raj Chitrakar: Lal Chowk, Srinagar, November 2007, Yog Raj drew directly on the tarred road surface. Lal Chowk (Red Square) located at the center of the city, has been the site of numerous political agitations since 1989. The city of Srinagar is now calm yet continues to be a politically fraught and heavily policed. The performance involved Yog Raj Chitrakar making a charcoal drawing of the clock tower in the square. He dressed in his tweed coat, he left his residence and walked thirty-minutes to the site, followed by local students and the art fraternity armed with cameras posing as media professionals. Yog Raj walked quietly ahead, positioned himself in front of the clock tower and without prior permission began his drawing. Numerous passers-by stopped and gathered to watch this man making an image. Within minutes what followed was a police crackdown – traffic was blocked from either end of the Square, and the crowd that had gathered there to watch the performance was lined-up and frisked. The performance lasted an hour and continued through the crackdown as the audience resumed its interest. This instance made me conscious of the unwritten agreement that is made by the audience to bear witness to the performance. The desire in an audience to see the performance through, being careful to keep the illusion alive, propelled the performance. The inconvenience did not deter passers-by from stopping and watching, in-fact, it loaned a sense of urgency to the performance. Even as I was aware of the politically sensitive history of the chosen site, the performance was not intended to be a self-conscious act of public protest or disobedience. However the turn of events that followed during my performance brought me face-to-face with a ground reality of the people living in Srinagar. This performance became especially significant to my practice as it reaffirmed to me that the act of drawing and performing could be used as a tool of powerful critical intervention.
Most recently, in January 2010, Yog Raj Chitrakar, walked from the Northern end of the island city of Mumbai to its southern tip and back; a journey 30 km and 48 hours long. The performance began in an open ground at 5 pm in Bandra, a trendy young suburb of Mumbai that prior to large gentrification projects since the 1970s and 80s, was a cluster of sleepy fishing villages. The performance began with Yog Raj dressed only in his underwear shaving his head and beard. He went on to wear a crisp blue shirt and khakis – a costume to loosely suggest a turn of the century colonial adventurer. Yog Raj set-out with a backpack full with two days worth of food and water, bedding, charcoal and a large piece of canvas, to make panoramic drawings of the city from two vantage points. The first was of the view from Hanging Gardens overlooking Chowpatty Beach and Marine Drive, a location that is popular with tourists and local resident joggers. The second drawing was of the Oval Maidan in Colaba, one of the few open public spaces in Mumbai. Now functioning as a cricket ground and a dog park, the Maidan also served as a place for public protests and demonstrations during the Freedom Struggle in the 1930s and 40s. This park is crowned majestically by Colonial architecture from the 19th and early 20th century. Yog Raj spent his nights in the waiting rooms of Mumbai Central Train Station and Victoria Terminus Train Station. Mumbai is the city where I reside and my need to alter my experience of it was pressing. I commute between Bandra, my studio and Colaba, the downtown commercial and cultural center, but always in the comfort of my car. On this commute, which took the form of a walk, the city seemed to have slowed down. I felt that I was able to experience viscerally every sight, scent and sound of this densely populated, culturally and economically diverse city.
My performances may be seen as a form of storytelling that intermingles familial histories, personal narrative and everyday life. The process of performing is a means to access, excavate, extract and present them. Autobiography is one place I know where to begin from. All urgencies, desires, knowledge, emotions, expressions, stem from that place that I am rooted in. My sense of identity is deeply connected to my sense of location in time and space.