What Gandhi wrote to Hitler

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One of India’s leading contemporary artists, Jitish Kallat is currently exhibiting in Sydney

Art for most is usually an instinctive, impulsive and instantaneous connection. However, a special place is reserved for contemplative works that find their way into the fibre of your being. These are the works that stay with you for a long time, jolt you out of your slumber and at the same time offer hope and assurance in times of need. Mumbai-based Jitish Kallat is a maker of such artworks.

Jitish Kallat.Indian Link

One of Kallat’s recent installations, Covering Letter (2012), is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art as a part of the Telling Tales exhibition. The artwork draws viewers towards a vaporous screen of fog on which is projected a letter addressed to Adolf Hitler by Mahatma Gandhi is projected.

The letter starts with the anonymous address “Dear Friend” on a curtain of white fog, perhaps alluding to the gas chambers in Nazi Germany; and it is only towards the end when the date and signature are revealed that the historical significance of the correspondence is inferred.

“A fundamental plea from the greatest proponent of peace to the greatest perpetrator of violence at the same moment in history. This letter written in the now, the here and from the self. It’s far more complex than it appears. Not as Gandhi and Hitler, or divine and devil, but from one life view to another life view,” notes Kallat, who is known for issuing such notices to the public.

Jitish Kallat.Indian Link
Jitish Kallat

These ‘notices’ can be understood as gentle and evocative reminders for the society to reflect on its shortcomings by taking lessons from the past. In Public Notice 1 (2003), he depicted Jawaharlal Nehru’s Independence speech through alphabets set on fire, like cremated words. He took a similar approach for Public Notice 2 (2007) that exhumed Gandhi’s Dandi March speech through alphabets made of bones, staring back at us like discarded relics and at the same time resonating with relevance in the contemporary context. Public Notice 3 (2010) involved 70,000 light bulbs, each handwoven onto a rubber film to represent Swami Vivekananda’s speech about convergence of all world religions, delivered on September 11, 1893 at the First World Parliament of Religions, exactly 108 years before the 9/11 attacks.

Covering Letter, which is a continuation of this stream of the artist’s thoughts, invites viewers, in Carriageworks curator Nina Miall’s words, “to ominously traverse this watershed moment in history, behind which there is only darkness”. The serif-fonted letter trespasses all spatial and temporal boundaries as it spills onto the walls and the floor of the space, reflecting on our skin and penetrating into our minds.

Commenting on the relevance of Gandhi’s ideals in the contemporary world, Kallat notes, “Like many of Gandhi’s gestures and life experiments, this piece of correspondence seems like an open letter destined to travel beyond its date and recipient – a letter written to anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

Jitish Kallat.Indian Link

The Telling Tales exhibition also explores various forms of narrative and the different ways in which these may be explored, including oral histories, shadow puppetry and art installations. It showcases Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei’s Letter Writing Project and Sonic Blossoms. In the former, viewers are invited to come inside three timber structures resembling pagodas, (each specifically designed for standing, sitting and kneeling — all positions associated with Buddhist contemplation), and write letters to loved ones and “put into words the things that remain unsaid”. In Sonic Blossoms, a classical opera singer chooses a member of the audience and offers them with a ‘gift’ of song, serenading them with Franz Schubert’s lieder.

Also on display are art-works made with instant coffee and water by refugees at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre as part of the Refugee Art Project, closely depicting their plight, and limited options and resources. Sydney artist Safdar Ahmed’s on-line graphic novel, Villawood: notes from an immigration detention centre, at the exhibition, contextualizes the project and depicts the harsh realities on ground.

Telling Tales will be exhibited at the Museum of contemporary Art till 9 October, 2016.