The written word and the savage state

Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter on exhibit at Philadelphia Museum of Art as a gift from the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation.

Jitish Kallat on Covering Letter from XTRAS on Vimeo.

“Dear Friend.” So reads the unlikeliest of salutations from one of history’s great icons of peace to its singular exemplar of human evil.

This greeting begins a seven-sentence letter written by Mahatma Gandhi and addressed to Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1939, only weeks before the Nazi leader invaded Poland and Europe exploded into war. Imploring Hitler not to initiate a conflict that would “reduce humanity to the savage state,” Gandhi submits the “considerable success” of his own pacifist philosophy.  As it happened, the message was intercepted by British intelligence and never reached its intended recipient.

Gandhi’s note is the subject of Covering Letter, a 2012 installation by the Mumbai-based contemporary artist Jitish Kallat, currently on exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a gift from the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation.

Covering Letter invites viewers to enter a darkened corridor where the projected text of Gandhi’s letter scrolls upward along a dissipating curtain of mist. It is an immersive experience whose elements evoke a spectral ephemerality and an almost tactile silence. In re-contextualizing Gandhi’s words, Kallat says that he sought to transform the message into something that could have been addressed “to anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

Amidst the still churning wake of the 2016 American presidential election, Kallat’s aim may be more pertinent than ever. In fact, Covering Letter has inspired the Raju Foundation to sponsor a $10,000 essay-writing contest for Philadelphia high school students, asking them to juxtapose the tone and content of Gandhi’s nearly 80-year old epistle with the reckless and caustic invective that has so transformed our political and social discourse in the age of social media.

Philadelphia attorney and Raju Foundation trustee Ajay Raju says of Gandhi’s letter, “We live in an era where the first move in any war of words is to dehumanize our opponents.  Gandhi stubbornly insisted on recognizing the humanity of his opponents.  There’s a deep morality in that.”

At a moment when the American experiment itself is at risk of being reduced to a savage state, Gandhi’s letter to Hitler, futile as it was, may offer us a crucial lesson in moral stubbornness.

Covering Letter will be on display until March, 2017 at the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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