Performance artist Nikhil Chopra's 50-hour solo show takes on colonialism

Performance artist Nikhil Chopra is unfazed about spending so much time in the performance venue for 50-hour piece Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Performance artist Nikhil Chopra is unfazed about spending so much time in the performance venue for 50-hour piece Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

An audio recording at Singapore's National Archives was instrumental in helping Indian performance artist Nikhil Chopra develop his sprawling 50-hour piece.

Titled Give Me Your Blood And I Will Give You Freedom, it will see him blending elements of performance, live art, theatre, painting and drawing.

Extended durational performances are nothing new for the artist, who has performed at major arts festivals and museums as well as notable art biennales.

He is here as one of the headliners of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. His work, a festival commission, opens this Friday at 7pm and will end on Sunday at 9pm.

Chopra, 40, is unfazed by the number of hours he is about to spend inhabiting the space at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road. Dressed casually for this interview in a pair of shorts and a cotton shirt, he has an easygoing manner that belies the sheer intensity of his art practice.

Fifty hours, he says, is equivalent to "two days, two nights and two hours. It gives me enough time to inhabit the space... 50 hours feels right to explore many of those ideas I am thinking about".

He is interested in "collapsing the boundaries" between various art practices. In many of his works, he creates art before the audience, sketching landscapes using charcoal on paper, shoe polish or drawing on walls. In Singapore, he will be using Chinese ink as a medium.

He says of the performance space, a former warehouse: "I was wonderfully overwhelmed by the space. The more space you give me, the more I like to occupy it. I like to inhabit it and have it crawl under my skin."

His piece revisits the year 1943 when India was in the midst of a war to free itself from 200 years of British rule. The title comes from the charismatic anti- colonial leader Subhas Chandra Bose's rallying cry: "Give me your blood and I will give you freedom". A group of women responded, forming the all-female combat army, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

Bose was leader of the Indian National Army, a Japanese-backed army in Singapore comprising Indian soldiers who originally fought with the British.

Chopra says he used this as the backdrop for his piece "because being an Indian is such a short phenomenon... I was drawn to Bose because he is a very ambiguous figure. It is not entirely clear where his politics lay".

He adds that during World War II, Bose emerged as a controversial figure, photographed shaking hands with Hitler and giving allegiance to the imperial Japanese army as it made inroads into Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Chopra says: "I was at the National Archives listening to a lot of audio tapes when I found a soldier, Sewa Singh's account of the Japanese invasion. He spoke of how soldiers came on bicycles and the awkward position Indian soldiers found themselves in - not knowing which side to be on.

"I thought that was a curious point of departure, something I could use in the piece. So, there is a soldier. There is a bicycle. Beyond the props, there'll be a sort of recreation of a post-apocalyptic world exploring what happens when cities fall."

Apart from fleshing out the passage of a bloody battle, he will assume the character of a fictional female warrior, Jhansi. To seek her freedom, she must be prepared to transform, shed her skin and "spill" blood.

"I was not very familiar with the history," he admits.

"When I visited Singapore to do the research, I was looking for overlaps of history and culture. The intersections of travel. What happened with the end of colonial power... These stories feel very fresh to me."

A masterful blend of theatre and visual art, Give Me Your Blood will see him create a live painting and in the climactic finale, emerge as a black monster, a queen, proclaiming her victory with her blood over a darkened stage. Evoking the fight for freedom against colonial rule, he will also map out stark landscapes of black ink on a white canvas, as a metaphor for a dark and bloody battle.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen calls Chopra "a very courageous artist" and says "it is unusual to have artists today performing for 50 hours. I feel that he puts himself in a very vulnerable position... it is almost like he goes to an ashram and at the end of it, we are purified with him".

It was Ong who suggested the artist visit Singapore to look at ways of addressing the broader festival theme of 20th- century legacies. Ong says: "Nikhil immediately latched on to the idea and became interested in Bose after listening to audio recordings he found in our archives."

Chopra graduated from the faculty of fine arts at India's M.S.University, Baroda, and went on to study at Maryland Institute, Baltimore, and Ohio State University. He lives in Goa with his artist wife and their two children, a son aged six and a daughter who is one.

He says he did not know he would be a performance artist until he was in graduate school. "I realised it all comes to me very easily. I love to perform. I love elements of theatre. I love to make drawing and this art form allows me to blend many of the things I love as an artist."

To train his body and mind for extended durational pieces, he does yoga, particularly Ashtanga yoga, a physically intense and athletic form of yoga which helps strengthen the core.

Everyday actions such as washing, eating, sleeping and dressing are woven into his performance, and the audience can expect each pause to be laden with the anticipation of what will happen next.

Viewers can come and go during the 50 hours, but Chopra's often politically charged and cutting-edge works have a way of drawing them in. He says he does not expect the audience to stay the full course but "whenever you walk in, there will be something you can engage with".

His performances have been hailed for their intensely powerful storytelling, combining history, personal narrative and elements of everyday life.

When asked what draws him to the past, he pauses for a moment before replying: "In a way I seek it. In most of my pieces, I want to dig deep into the past in the present in order to be able to understand how to deal with the future."