‘In all probability this will be my last speech to you. Even if the Government allow me to march tomorrow morning, this will be my last speech on the sacred banks of the Sabarmati. Possibly these may be the last words of my life here.’
So began Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s speech on 12 March 1930, given before he walked 390 kilometres to the coast town of Dandi in Gujarat. There he made salt from seawater, refusing to pay the salt tax imposed by the colonial British Government and therefore breaking the law.1 This simple act, known as the ‘salt satyagraha’, inspired nationwide civil disobedience and is seen as the beginning of an intensified Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s legacy of non-violent protest continues to influence political action worldwide.
In ‘Public Notice 2’ (2007) contemporary Indian artist Jitish Kallat renders Gandhi’s historic speech in its entirety, recreating each of its individual letters as stand-alone pieces. The work spans the entrance court of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, its yellow walls enveloping the space in sensual colour. The letters look like bones, suggesting a display from an archaeological dig, as though Kallat has excavated these words from their historical resting place.
As Kallat says: ‘In today’s terror-infected world, where wars against terror are fought at prime television time, voices such as Gandhi’s stare back at us like discarded relics.’2 The violence that Gandhi disavowed is ongoing. As the artist notes, ‘The historic “Dandi March” and the speech were delivered not far from the site where India saw one of the worst communal riots and bloodshed since Indian Independence.’3
In 1947 India gained independence from British rule. At that same moment the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan. The violence of this event still reverberates in these two countries. In 2002 in Gujarat, over 1,000 people were killed in an outbreak of communal violence.
Kallat’s work references this recent violence and positions it as the metaphorical grave for Gandhi’s words. Yet, as artist and curator Shaheen Merali argues, in addition to mourning this violence, Kallat’s ‘Public Notice’ series also reiterates historical texts, making them relevant to the present moment. As Merali says, in his ‘experience of reading, moving, and feeling the pulse and passion of words, Kallat casts another net – one that helps us to understand these texts in their time and "in their potential"’ [emphasis added].4 In Kallat’s hands, the historical context of Gandhi’s words is keenly appreciated, but as relics given new life in a contemporary artwork we also understand them afresh. It is in this dual existence that they can today ‘help us to retain and address resistance’.5
1. A tax imposed on the people of India in 1835 and that reaped major dividends for the traders of the British East India Company and then the administration of the British Commonwealth.
2. Jitish Kallat, artist’s statement, www.saatchigallery.com/ artists/jitish_kallat_resources.htm (accessed 12 December 2014).
4. Shaheen Merali, ‘Delineating the Vernacular’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 36, no. 2 (2011): p.46.
4,479 letters: installation dimensions variable
Gift of Gene and Brian Sherman 2015. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Not on display
© Jitish Kallat
Shown in 3 exhibitions
Jitish Kallat: Public Notice 2, The Hall of Nations, The Kennedy Centre, Washington D.C., 01 Mar 2011–20 Mar 2011
Go East: The Gene & Brian Sherman Contemporary Asian Art Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 14 May 2015–05 Oct 2015
Sacred and Profane, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 07 May 2016–22 Aug 2016