An exhibition of rare envelopes with handwritten notes by , scribbled just a day before the announcement of the Partition of India, has opened at the University of Southampton until September.
‘Tangled Hierarchy’, curated by Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat, is made up of five used envelopes conserved within the university's Mountbatten Archive of documents connected to the last Viceroy of India. Each envelope is addressed to Mahatma Gandhi and is the only surviving record of an exchange he had with Lord Louis Mountbatten ahead of one of the most important chapters in Indian history.
On Monday June 2, 1947, Lord Mountbatten met with Mahatma Gandhi to discuss the imminent Partition of India, a proposition strongly opposed by . As a consequence of Gandhi undertaking a vow of silence on Mondays, the meeting took an unusual turn and instead of conversing, Gandhi communicated with Mountbatten via handwritten notes on the backs of used envelopes. It was on June 3, 1947, that the Partition plan was officially tabled by the outgoing British Raj government.
Kallat shares: “Gandhi wrote: ‘I am sorry I can’t speak. When I took the decision about the Monday silence I did reserve two exceptions, i.e. about speaking to high functionaries on urgent matters or attending upon sick people. But I know you don’t want me to break my silence…”
“We do not know what Mountbatten said, but in his silence Gandhi leaves us an archival residue of their meeting.
“His disapproval of Partition was widely known so the silence is a loaded one. These envelopes become the starting point for a layered enquiry into ideas of silence and speech, bodies and borders, partitioned land, causal loops and phantom pain.”
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Kallat was invited to curate an exhibition which considers the Archive and the “Gandhi envelopes” as a reference point for a series of artistic conversations and correspondences. Combining archival and scientific artefacts, alongside works by contemporary artists, ‘Tangled Hierarchy’ is designed to explore various relationships and themes of maps, borders, and unsettling displacement.
Alongside, the gallery is also hosting the first UK showing of Kallat’s immersive installation dating back to 2012 entitled ‘Covering Letter’. Taking the form of words projected onto a traversable curtain of cascading fog, the piece presents a historical letter by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, written just weeks before the start of World War II. In the spirit of his principle of universal friendship, Gandhi begins the letter with the greeting “Dear friend”, as mist diffuses Gandhi’s projected words, echoing the fate of his message, which went unheeded.
Kallat describes this correspondence as a plea from a great advocate of peace to one of the most violent individuals in history. It is equally dubbed an open invitation for self-reflection, as its scrolling words speak to the extreme violence in the world today.
“Occasionally adjusting the focal length and distance at which we view the world, in time or in space, alters the manner in which we interpret the now and immediate. As an this element runs through much of my work. An utterance from the past could offer insights into the present,” explains Kallat.
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Through the twinned Gandhian exhibitions, the artist says he set out to revisit potent historical documents, drawing attention to the possibilities of peace and tolerance in a world plagued by aggression, control, and surveillance. Themes of violence, displacement, trauma and rupture are echoed throughout both exhibitions, demonstrating the cyclical nature of human history and how calls for peace repeatedly go unheeded.