Sir Raja Project with Nikhil Chopra

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Sir Raja III comprised a live performance, titled, The Death of Sir Raja III, and a photography exhibition, titled, What will I do with all this land? For the duration of three hours, Nikhil placed himself as the character of Sir Raja III in a tableau; and in the series of photographs we saw Sir Raja III on his journey through the land gifted to him. Sir Raja III is the third in a series of works that explore the theatrics of posing, through tableaux for live performance and film. The narrative around Sir Raja does not refer to any particular place or moment in history, and is woven from personal memory, old family photographs, an ancestral home, and endless stories of the family.

On the Fourth Floor of Kitab Mahal, a British Neo-gothic building in the heart of Bombay’s Fort District, Nikhil performed lying motionless. Adorned in silk and jewels, flanked by velvet drapes and rich oriental rugs, he interacted with no one. The scene was reminiscent of European painting and Sir Raja III lay still as if he were posing for a painting depicting his own death.

The Fourth Floor allowed Nikhil the space to create a hundred foot approach to the performance installation. The chandelier lit set sparkled in distant view and as viewers approached the performance details emerged. That there was no clear demarcation between the viewing space and the performance enabled the audience to come within close distance from Sir Raja III. “I felt very vulnerable as a performer, knowing that the audience could in fact touch me”, says Nikhil.

Going past the performance installation, through black curtains, viewers could enter the second part of the exhibition. Here, a narrative is unveiled through a series of eight photographs, titled What will I do with all this land? Munir Kabani photographed Nikhil in the character of Sir Raja III. Dressed in full regalia, a formal portrait, reminiscent of 19 century British Imperial photography of Indian dignitaries, lead us to photographs of Sir Raja III on a horse wandering through Kashmir’s pristine landscape, alone and ponderous. Nikhil recollects saying, “ I hadn’t been back to Kashmir since 1989 after having spent a significant part of my childhood here. Vivid memories of our home by the Liddar River, picnics with the family and running through its meadows as a boy, urged me to return”.

The exhibition was lit to allow the windows to frame old Bombay and brought into the rooms the grandeur of Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building. Having to exit from where one entered brought viewers back in contact with the performance.

The idea, Sir Raja took birth in October 2002 in the basement of a Victorian town house in Columbus, Ohio, USA. Dressed in full costume Sir Raja sat motionless. In 2003, Nikhil preformed Sir Raja II in an abandoned Ohio warehouse. 350 feet of red carpet led viewers to Sir Raja II seated at a table with a lavish spread of food, fruits, and flowers, still warm and aromatic. Artists/Curators Joelle Jensen and Andrea Gorddon have written, “…Sir Raja collapses the space between performance, painting, and photography. …The exquisite scene is a live Vanitas painting, a reminder of the death present in every moment’s passing. In contrast to these classic treatises on morality, Chopra’s character sits without judgment, while challenging the viewer to confront past and present issues of colonialism, exoticism, and excess.”

Nikhil has shown his film and video works in several group shows including The Taste Of Others curated by Leeza Ahmady at New York City’s apexart, which was part of performance-related events between February 12 - March 12, 2005; and Contemporaneity: International Video Art in Kyrgyzstan, which was part of the 2004 Central Asian Biennial, held in Bishkek, Kyrgzstan. After two years at M. S. University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, Nikhil went to the United States where he completed his BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, and an MFA in painting from the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Nikhil has recently returned to India. He now lives and works in Mumbai.