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'Almost like a haiku': Gandhi's letter to Hitler becomes art

Jitish Kallat is creator of "Covering Letter."
Courtesy of the author.
Jitish Kallat is creator of "Covering Letter." Courtesy of the author.Read more

The most recent acquisition by the Philadelphia Museum of Art consists of a seemingly ephemeral embodiment of a apparently hopeless gesture involving one of the most unlikely of pairings – Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler.

On July 23, 1939, Gandhi sent a 137-word letter to Hitler.

"Dear Friend," the typed letter begins. "Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. …  It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you."

Gandhi signs it, "I remain your sincere friend."

Jitish Kallat, one of India's most versatile and interesting contemporary artists, has taken this letter and transformed it into a kind of emblem for all moments of deep, even desperate questioning. The letter, written five weeks before the outbreak of World War Two, is projected on a screen of smoke, endlessly cycling over its evanescent medium, allowing a visitor even to pass through the words as they cycle down the smoke and cascade across the floor. In this video, Kallat discusses the experience and impact of the exhibit:

The museum unveiled Kallat's Covering Letter  Sunday at the Perelman Building, where it will remain on view until March 5. The artist, a 42-year-old native of Mumbai, where he remains based, was on hand for the opening.

Was it just chance that this work, a kind of meditation on light and dark, order and disorder, reconciliation and hostility, opened just a few days after a fraught election in the United States?

This was conceived in 2009 and realized in 2012. One is willing to concede that an artwork has its own internal intelligence, its own internal trajectory, its own forensic history of where it came from, and its own desire to show where it is going. In a way, it cultivates its narrative on its own as well. As an artist, the works you make are entities unto themselves. For me, this is a productive moment to reflect, especially at a time when reflection is heavily called for, in a post-election such as this. Chance, of course, plays a role.

This work, conceived in another time and another place, involving words spoken by leaders of the last century, somehow seems to resonate here in 21st-century America. Why do you think that is?

For me at this moment, especially when we see protests all around, the question might be – what are the protocols of disagreement? And how can disagreement be productive space? How can disagreement be generative? It is about finding the space of the other in one's self. And I think a letter like Gandhi's, written from one extreme, as perhaps the greatest proponent of peace, reaching out to one of the worst perpetrators of violence – can there be a space for us somewhere in the middle?

Did Hitler receive the letter?

It's speculated that it may have never got to him. It may have most likely been intercepted by the British.

And they didn't forward it.

Like most Gandhian gestures, these are made for the world. … They have their own pathway. Even if it reaches the British, the message has reached someone. How do you save the world from a savage state? How do you take the path of peace? How do you withdraw from the path of aggression? These are things that could well serve the British of the time, as well as us now here. The same questions are valid because we live the same human pitfalls and complexities, and we conduct ourselves as a complex species, and maybe this is a reflection of something we can retool for ourselves.

How did you conceive of this exhibit?

I walked into the Gandhi museum, Mani Bhavan, in Bombay, and I think just the moment of looking at that letter – it is small, it is distilled, and yet it is immense. It is so simplified to the degree of being almost, I often think of the letter as haiku, in its absolute simplicity, its complexity, its economy, its abundance. That's what drew me. Standing in front of this letter, there was this cascade of immensity. And the immensity was exactly what now has somehow de-conformed – this ever-dissolving letter that one can traverse and journey through.

Take us through the experience of the exhibit.

The work unfolds in a few steps. One is the entry into darkness. As one steps on the flowing letters below, one's foot is illuminated. A few steps later, maybe one's knee is illuminated. And a few steps further, half the body, and as you reach the letter, the entire body is illuminated.

The letter also changes in its legibility, doesn't it?

When you see it on the floor, it is unreadable. At the bottom of the letter, the letter seems to be shredding and shredding and shredding, atomized every moment... because the letter is trying to form in this ever-falling stream of mist. And it's only when the letter rises, it gains legibility at the top. ... It's something that keeps cycling back and back and back. In this scroll of the letter, one can enter and exit and be oneself in the process.

Jitish Kallat: Covering Letter. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Through March 5, 2017, at the Perelman Building, 252 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hours: Tuesday–Sunday: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Closed Wednesday and Friday evenings. Free with Museum admission: adults $20; seniors (65+) and youth 13-18, $14; 12 and under and members free. Information: 215-763-8100,