When it was time for Nikhil Chopra to show his first artwork, he wanted to showcase his love for art, as well as his love for acting. So he decided he would act out a painting instead of drawing one. The “exhibition" was held in the basement of his apartment in Ohio in the US, where he was studying for a master’s degree in fine arts. Chopra dressed up as a maharaja and sat as if he were posing for a portrait.

“The idea was to pull the audience back into the time and space when the maharaja was posing for his portrait," he recalls, sitting in his Bandra studio in Mumbai. For Chopra, the thrill comes not from painting, but from becoming a character in the painting.

In character: (clockwise from extreme left) Chopra’s portrait. Photo: Munir Kabani/Chatterjee & Lal; Steven Cohen performs at Khoj Live. Photo: Courtesy The Khoj Book; and a performance act by Pushpamala N. Photo: Courtesy The Khoj Book

All this might strain our credulity, but according to two pioneering Indian performance artists, Shantanu Lodh and Inder Salim, Chopra is the only “pure" practitioner of this art form in India today. Performance art, which first emerged in Europe and the US in the 1960s, typically involves an individual or a group of people performing an action at a given point in time which constitutes the artwork. Often, the artist uses his or her body as an instrument or a medium of art, and instances of self-mutilation, flagellation or nudity are not unusual.

Lodh, who completed his master of fine arts (MFA) in 1995 from Santiniketan, was perhaps the first to hold a performance in India. In 1998, he sat next to a fish tank that contained catfish. He would dip his hand into the tank and allow the catfish— which had been named after his recently deceased mother—to nibble on it. He would then withdraw his hand and allow the blood dripping from his hand to fall on to a three-layered invitation card. On one side was an invitation to Lodh’s birthday party and on the reverse, an invitation to witness the catfish biting him. In between the two layers, he would allow his blood to collect. At the end of the half-hour performance, the catfish was released into the Yamuna river.

“The audience (schoolteachers and artists) didn’t know how to react. Some were astonished, others disgusted," recalls Lodh, now 48. Lodh had chosen the medium of performance because he felt painting alone couldn’t capture the pain his mother’s death had caused him.

Salim, on the other hand, took to performance art out of disillusionment with the art scene in Delhi. “Back then, galleries would only show works of senior artists. There were no takers for anyone new," he said over the phone from Srinagar, where his travelling performance art festival, Art Karavan International, was on.

Salim finds the indifference to performance art—even by the art establishment—galling. In September, he cut off his finger and threw it into the Yamuna as a commentary on how filthy the river has become. That it was dismissed as an act of madness by some, and labelled as environmental activism by others, bothers Salim. Not many know what performance art is, he points out. “Only Jawaharlal Nehru University has a chapter on performance art," he says. “These are the only handful of people who don’t expect me to break into a song for them."

The Delhi-based Khoj International Artists’ Association, set up in 1997, was the first to offer a platform for performance art and in 2008, Khoj introduced Khoj Live, a six-day performance art festival.

Unlike Salim, Pooja Sood, the director of Khoj, sounds upbeat about this novel and unconventional art form. She says the number and calibre of Indian performance artists is on the rise. “It’s gaining validity as a form, but it will take a few more years and many more performances for the audience to turn discerning," she says.

Over the last few years, art galleries such as Gallery Espace in Delhi and Project 88 and Chatterjee & Lal in Mumbai, have also opened their doors to performance artists. Salim, however, is not impressed. “Galleries are not inviting artists because they are interested in performance art but more because they’re trying to catch up with the trend abroad," he says. “(In India) if you can’t make money out of something then it’s not taken seriously." Salim himself holds a day job with a bank and uses his salary to fund his art projects.

Sood admits that with the exception of Chopra, no artist has been able to make money out of performance art. “All of them have supplementary sources of income," she says. Chopra says he earns his “pocket money" from the photographs and videos that come out of his performance. Mortimer Chatterjee, director and co-founder of the Chatterjee & Lal gallery, where Yog Raj’s documentation was first displayed, says this documentation has takers because of its aesthetic, as well as novelty, value.

It was the novelty of the form here that made Chopra return to India. “Unlike New York, London or Paris—which is saturated with art—everything here is fresh. It (performance art) is still new here and so full of possibilities."