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Between silence and speech: 'Tangled Hierarchy II' at Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The exhibition features artistic discourses on five handwritten notes exchanged between Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten on the eve of the announcement of partition.

by Urvi KothariPublished on : Mar 29, 2023

"I am sorry/ I cannot speak." These were the words that Mahatma Gandhi wrote to the last viceroy of British India, Lord Mountbatten, on the eve of India’s partition. To give a little pretext to these important phrases that have etched an important mark on Indian colonial history; the eventuality dates back to Monday, June 2, 1947, when Lord Louis Mountbatten met Mahatma Gandhi to discuss the Indian subcontinent's imminent partition, a proposition strongly opposed by Gandhi. Consequently, Gandhi undertook a vow of silence, marking all Mondays. The meeting held on June 2 took an unusual turn as Gandhi conversed with Mountbatten via handwritten notes on the back of used envelopes. These 'Gandhi envelopes' thus mark the only surviving record of this exchange.

The collection of envelopes on which Mahatma Gandhi wrote notes at his meeting with Lord Mountbatten, June 2, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi | Tangled Hierarchy II |STIRworld
The collection of envelopes on which Mahatma Gandhi wrote notes at his meeting with Lord Mountbatten on June 2, 1947Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

In the present day, these Gandhi envelopes form an important record, marking 75 years to India's independence. These envelopes also form the reference point for Indian contemporary artist and curator Jitish Kallat, who has curated a series of artistic conversations and correspondences by contemporary artists, that combine archival and scientific artefacts to explore the themes of visibility and invisibility, silence and speech, pain, partitioned lands, borders, maps and displacement.

Recollecting his initial reaction on first encountering these envelopes, Kallat shares, “The envelopes were all addressed to Mahatma Gandhi and received by him with merely his name and city mentioned on it. Gandhi's silence on that day had a unique cadence. He writes: 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 to sick people. But I know you don’t want me to break my silence (…).”

Kallat adds, “We don’t know what Mountbatten said that day but, in his silence, Gandhi leaves us an archival residue from a moment, just weeks before one the largest human displacements in history. They open numerous questions about speech and silence, agency and hierarchy. Was his silence a result of his already having expended his words challenging partition? We can only speculate (…).”

Installation view: The collection of envelopes, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi | Tangled Hierarchy II | STIRworld
Installation view: The collection of envelopes from 1947 Image: Thierry Bal; Courtesy of University of Southampton Special Collections

Titled Tangled Hierarchy II, the exhibition opened at the John Hansard Gallery on June 2, 2022. The exhibition coincided with 75 years since Gandhi wrote those words. The show has now travelled back to its homeland, India, and is currently being displayed at the Kochi Biennale 2022 in Kochi. Kallat comments, "The exhibition dates overlap with the tumultuous weeks in 1947 when maps were abruptly redrawn, leading to catastrophic violence and the forced migration of twenty million people.”

Walkthrough of the works by Zarina Hashmi and Mona Hatoum by Jitish Kallat Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Departing from this idea of forced migration, redrawn maps and partition, the retrospective explores the idea of a consequently fragmented world. A visual representation repletes this idea as visitors are greeted by Zarina Hashmi’s woodcut print, titled Abyss. Having relocated to Karachi from Aligarh, in the 1950s, Hashmi’s simple jagged lines hint at a sense of uncertainty and complication that awaited the future of the subcontinent. Juxtaposed with Hashmi’s silent but impactful prints, stands Mona Hatoum’s globe, marked out in burning electric filaments that cast the room in a threatening red light. The art curator adds, “In Mona Hatoum’s Coat Hanger, a cut-up map mutates into a string bag. This evocative work is seen here in close conjunction with two refugee luggage trunks from 1947 that have crossed the newly formed borders.”

Installation view of Tangled Hierarchy at John Hansard Gallery | Tangled Hierarchy II | STIRworld
Installation view of Tangled Hierarchy at John Hansard Gallery Image: Thierry Bal; Courtesy of John Hansard Gallery

The first iteration of the show also included historic well documented moments by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The photographs depict a group of men playing in a refugee camp in 1947 at Kurukshetra, Haryana, India. While Bresson’s Kodak moments celebrated a sense of togetherness and free-spirited energies amidst the tense environment, Paul Pfeiffer’s tri-screened video loop footage showcases a collapsed soccer player, crashing to the ground after a foul. “Their fellow players have been erased from the screen, and the remaining lone player is repeatedly brought to the ground, seemingly defeated by an eternally recurring fall,” comments Kallat. The male player—depicted in rather virtual isolation—writhes on the ground with an exaggerated demonstration of pain, raising two crucial questions to the viewers: is the pain expressed in art even real and what kind of reality do we ascribe to in art and suffering?

Installation view of the exhibition | Tangled Hierarchy II | STIRworld
Installation view of the exhibition Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

The art exhibition series Tangled Hierarchy II is a speculative curatorial thought, replete with self-references and paradox. Kallat says, “As we reflect upon the historic Gandhi notes, we find ourselves once again in a tangled hierarchy—a world caught in a strange recursive loop—where tragic human displacement like that of the Indian Partition is currently unravelling in Ukraine. It again comes back to this question of the eternal return of human tragedy, or human folly and aggression.”

Installation view: Tangled Hierarchy II | Tangled Hierarchy II  | STIRworld
Installation view: Tangled Hierarchy II Image: Thierry Bal; Courtesy of John Hansard Gallery

Now being presented by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, the exhibition revisits the sentiments that ran alongside the days, weeks and months of partition, 75 years ago. The curatorial showcase has a completely different resonance in South India since the pain of partition was experienced at some geographical distance. Conceived from a very different context, Kallat’s exhibition supports the principle that withdrawal is a positive action, that silence can be a powerful expression of resistance, that invisibility is preferable to losing control over your own representation, and that what is hidden, continues to have an effect.

Portrait of Jitish Kallat | Tangled Hierarchy II | STIRworld
Portrait of Jitish Kallat Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Read more on Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, which is on view till April 10, 2023, in Kerala, India.

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