‘Covering Letter’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Dead letter resurrected

The letter never reached its intended recipient. Mailed 77 years ago, on the verge of World War II, it was filed away in an archive until Indian artist Jitish Kallat found it and delivered it to a world still in need of its message. In Covering Letter (2012), Kallat finally delivers the letter Mahatma Gandhi wrote Adolf Hitler in 1939.

A timely message from the past. (Photo by Joseph Hu)

Is the prize worth the price?

“It is quite clear” Gandhi wrote to Hitler, “that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be?”

Currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Covering Letter is based on the single typed sheet dated July 23, 1939, which Hitler never saw. According to an essay by Amanda Sroka, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art, the missive was intercepted by British intelligence.

Speaking peace to power

Decades later, Kallat presents Gandhi’s message in an intimate installation that makes it feel as though he is writing to us.  Stepping into a darkened gallery, words rise silently through the mist, slow enough to be read and absorbed. Simultaneously, a reverse image of the text glides across the floor, lapping at our feet, only to slip away, a discarded page. We think, what might have happened if Gandhi’s note had arrived in Berlin, if Hitler had read it? We can marvel at how applicable the sentiments are, still.

Gandhi was no fool; he knew the odds were long: “…I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth.” Yet he did what he could, stating the case for peace in two paragraphs. Enveloped as we are in a tsunami of splashy pronouncements and positions that change by the moment, it is easy to forget the power wielded by one man with a steadfast commitment, who did not shrink from politely speaking his mind to the most oppressive, unbridled threat of his day. It was a doubtful strategy then. Now it is unimaginable.

Karmic mailman

Besides enabling us to read words meant for Hitler, Kallat forces us to anoint ourselves in them: to exit the gallery, we must pass over and through Gandhi’s ghostly plea, as the typewritten lines rain down.

Karmic mailman that he is, Kallat’s piece also reminds us of what receiving a letter once meant. It was a personal event in which the sender spent time and effort. The contents were intended for just one person. Writing and receiving letters required patience and time.

Transforming forgotten footnotes

Born in Mumbai in 1974, Kallat often plumbs the dustbin of history for inspiration. In addition to remarks by Gandhi and Jawaharal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, he has used historic and current events in his work, which includes painting, photography, video, and sculpture. Pursuing peace in a violent world is a recurrent theme, as is inequality. “In today’s terror-infected world…voices such as Gandhi’s stare back at us like discarded relics,” he wrote of Public Notice (2007) based on a speech Gandhi delivered during India’s struggle for freedom, in which he instructed protesters to remain nonviolent.

Covering Letter has become part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Kallat’s work is also held in the collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, Singapore Art Museum, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and has been exhibited in Sydney, Melbourne, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Delivering Gandhi’s dead letter at last, Kallat allows his message to echo across time. Covering Letter enunciates ideas that still need to be spoken, and heard, in every world capital and every human heart.

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