Two simultaneous but widely diverging exhibitions in Mumbai offer an insight into artist Jitish Kallat’s range of references. In Covering Letter, which opened at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) on 15 January, Kallat is on familiar territory, using a historical letter to examine contemporary affairs. Viewers conversant with his work will be able to place it in the Public Notice series that the artist has made since 2003, and which have been displayed at several venues, including the India Art Fair and Art Institute of Chicago. The other exhibition, Sightings, opened on Friday at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road and employs a variety of media, such as sculpture, lenticular prints of photographs, and paper drawing.

Kallat speaks about his continuing engagement with historical texts as well as the elements and natural surfaces. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us a little bit about the display of ‘Covering Letter’. In previous iterations of ‘Public Notice’, you’ve set fire to historical words, or fashioned them out of fibreglass bones, or rendered them in LED…

You see Covering Letter in the form of words ascending a column of mist. As the letter rises, one realizes that there is first-person persuasion to save the world from a “savage state". It’s only after the letter rises fully that one realizes that the author of the letter is Mahatma Gandhi and the intended recipient, in 1939, is Hitler. As a viewer, one can see the moving relationship between the words in the mist; as you walk towards the letter, it continues to flow beneath your feet and body. You’re able to, momentarily, physically inhabit the letter.

There are multiple directions in which the artwork points—the primary point is towards the self. For me, Covering Letter is a space of self-reflection, while it might also reflect on the state of the world. The two, to an extent, are the same thing. Gandhi and Hitler almost become metonyms; the principal proponent of peace writing to a recipient who was possibly the most violent individual to share the same historical era.

You have used texts by Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda in the ‘Public Notice’ series you’ve made in the past 13 years. With ‘Covering Letter’, you return to Gandhi. Why are you drawn to historical figures and speeches?

In more than a decade, there have been three Public Notices; they take long gestation periods. I don’t approach these from any research or investigative mode. Numerous aspects have led them to become central to my thinking. The first one in 2003 (made in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, where Nehru’s “Tryst With Destiny" speech was rendered in adhesive and set aflame) was at a moment when several of us lamented a certain kind of fundamentalist segregation of our society. At that time, I felt the answers might lie in the utterances at the eve of independence. It led to Public Notice 2 (2007), which was Gandhi’s speech from 1930, calling for complete civil disobedience. And then, there’s a very, very long narrative of how Public Notice 3 (2010) came about.

Can you take us through the process of arriving at your themes for ‘Sightings’?

If I go as far back as the mid-1990s, a lot of these themes (according to the gallery note: “time, sustenance, sleep, along with an interplay of scales and proximities, and evocations of the celestial") appear in the work I made soon after art school and continue to be central to my work. They have taken forms and dimensions quite apart from each other in the intervening decades, but they are parallel inquiries.

The (lenticular prints) in the central work have extended names like Sightings D9M4Y2015 or D19M12Y2015, which might sound like they are from the notebook of an astrophysicist, but these are actually dates on which I went to Pali Naka market and bought fruits. These are close-up pictures of blueberries or apples or oranges; each print also has its own negative. So you see the actual image of the surface of a melon or guava, but also its inverse where it begins to reveal an intergalactic space…as if the fruit were a momentary photograph of the deep space from where it has come. In other prints, it evokes the insides of the human body. Sightings simultaneously points to a world of small scales, illegible to our eyes, even as it invokes the world of great distances beyond human comprehension. Both are registered in plain sight on objects such as fruits, that emerge from starlight and become our bodies once consumed.

Did your objects dictate the artwork? Did you see these surfaces and want to employ them? Or was it the other way around?

Well, once I took on the role of the curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014-15), I decided to put a halt to my own artistic work. In the six months I was in Fort Kochi, I ate a fruit platter every day at the hotel—I always saw stars on the surface of the apples. So when I returned to my studio in April (2015), my first instinct was to verify this experience that had preoccupied me for all those months.

Then there are a set of drawings on paper, Wind Study (The Hour Of The Day Of The Month Of The Season), where I made a series of pencil drawings, laid them over with inflammable fluid and set it on fire. The wind at that moment would leave a trail (in a particular direction). But what took me deeper into these works was that every 30 seconds, the wind would change. I could not perceive this great atmospheric reversal, but if I just watched these natural elements interacting on the surface of my drawing, it was like a transcript of a conversation I couldn’t hear. A conversation between wind and fire. My role becomes that of an eavesdropper. I had to surrender a lot of my artistic will, because I would desire the black in a particular direction, but the wind would be going somewhere else.

Is there a reason the two shows are being displayed where they are?

In some senses, my work tends to speak across various registers, various media, various scales. To me, all these parallel inquiries on where I live continue—while one may have a letter or an alphabet, another might have a fruit, a third might have a roti. There is a film of separation in these two very different contexts.

While Sightings is a new body of work, Covering Letter is exhibited in the context of an encyclopaedic museum and allows the space for reflection by a wide array of visitors. What you think you understood of it might just be what you know of it. I can’t claim to know fully why Gandhi referred to Hitler as a friend. Yet I hold a view of why he did it. There is a very productive uncertainty of who it was addressed to; was it to Hitler in 1939? Or was it addressed to anyone, anywhere, anytime? Was it, like a lot of Gandhi’s gestures, beyond its delivery date and intended recipient? Is there a dimension to it that we can repurpose to this day and age? All of these questions are very open. I don’t have the answers to them or else I wouldn’t have made the work.

Jitish Kallat: Covering Letter is on till 28 February, 10.15am-6pm, at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS; and Sightings is on till 25 February, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Chemould Prescott Road, Fort, Mumbai.

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