The House of Conflict and Struggle

Shristi Kapoor visits Conflictorium in Ahmedabad, a museum that is meant to remind us of who we can be… 

Crowned as India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City, Ahmedabad or Amdavad, is often touted as a melting pot of tradition, culture and architectural marvels. A city that lives at its own pace, it has also witnessed brutal violence in many forms. Whether it’s the tragic communal riots of 2002 or the geography that divides the city into two, Old Amdavad and New Ahmedabad, the city is no stranger to conflict. 

While some learn to ignore it and carry on with their dhando (business), some use their anger to catalyse change. Artist and dancer, Avni Sethi is amongst those who confront her anger and urge the people around her to acknowledge it with Conflictorium, India’s first Museum of Conflict. 

The first museum of conflict, set inside a 95-year old home

While some learn to ignore it and carry on with their dhando (business), some use their anger to catalyse change. Artist and dancer, Avni Sethi is amongst those who confront her anger and urge the people around her to acknowledge it with Conflictorium, India’s first Museum of Conflict.


This unique museum was set up in April 2013 by Sethi as a part of her final year graduation project at at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.  Conflictorium is a multi-sensory interactive space that addresses various personal and political struggles through sound, touch and intriguing visuals in the name of art.


“As a believer in touch, I wanted to work with physical space as it allows me to form a connection that very few media can,” Sethi says.


Conflictorium is nestled in the heart of Old City across the Sabarmati River in an old, beautiful house. While the building is an incredible space, it also has a unique story. Gool Lodge belonged to Bachuben Nagarwala,  Ahmedabad’s first hairstylist who lived alone in a largely communally tense neighbourhood. 

“Finding this house was my A-ha! Moment,”  Sethi says. “Apart from the neighbourhood, Ahmedabad’s first technical college is opposite the lodge, and just 100 metres down is the district court that has tried some of the most important cases that drove us down the road to the kind of political hell that we are in right now. So there was no question of looking elsewhere.” 

The Memory lab is a tribute to Bachuben Nagarwala

Your journey of uncomfortable truths begin when you are confronted with the ‘Conflict Timeline’, this display takes us back to the 1960s exhibiting the different pogroms , and battles that unfolded in Gujarat. It is followed by the Gallery of Disputes, planned by Mansi Thakkar, the centre's graphic fashioner. 


For this viewer, the most chilling display was that which presented conflict of gender. As you walk in, you are welcomed with an immortal Bollywood line. “Bhagwan ke liye mujhe chhod do,” (For the   love of God, please let me go) backed with the heinous laugh of the villain that just creeps under your skin and reminds you of the ways in which even this most terrifying of moments for a woman, the possibility of being raped, can be commodified. 

Next is the Empathy Alley, where the nation’s conflict is portrayed through cut-outs of pioneers like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Sardar Patel facing each other, while you hear their famous speeches on the Partition of India and the formation of three new nations, birthed in tragedy. The Moral Compass, on the other hand, makes you wonder about  New India with a photograph of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar  looking at a the copy of the Constitution of India.

At ’The Memory Lab’, the exhibit reminds you that conflict is personal too, here people are encouraged to leave pieces of their struggle behind. From a letter that wasn’t sent, to even a cigarette. As you walk to the first floor, there is a thread of memory, a tribute to the endurance of women: a dressing table with a pair of scissors and a photograph of Bachuben. My favourite of all.

IMG_0566 2.jpg

Unpleasant yet enthralling visual from the Gallery of Disputes

IMG_9858.JPG

"In This House and That World" is a sound installation by Avni Sethi narrates the history of Gool Lodge

Apart from these permanent exhibits, the museum also hosts various workshops, readings, screenings amongst other interactive things. A safe space to discuss and resolve conflicts, I wonder if it also upsets people with different opinions. “We, at the museum, try to put on exhibitions that are intact, bring in people who will disagree or people who are not necessarily on the same side. But there are also people who sit on the fence. They claim to be apolitical. They say to themselves, ‘I don’t know about all that, but let’s go check it out.’ Most people find this position objectionable; to me they are the most precious audience. Part of this kind of polarisation we see today is that we have also lost the ability to listen to anything different, and we at the Museum of Conflict have trained ourselves to converse with a certain level of empathy,” Sethi claims.


While Conflictorium was established as a project to channel all her anger and open doors for conversations, it was awarded the Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice for 2020-22 amidst the pandemic. “It was nice to be recognised when everything was low. When you build a life in this work, you build an expectation of the world that is low so it was quite unexpected. And it feels good to be recognised by people whose work is also precious.” “But awards are dangerous, they can shift something in you. So every time you are recognised you want to sit back and examine the spine.” she tells me.


With the lockdown, the museum is shut and exhibitions have moved online (check it out at https://www.conflictorium.org/), I wonder what’s next for the Conflictorium. “It’s so bleak to imagine a future right now when you can’t even imagine a present. I will refrain from thinking about what’s next, the effort is about making sense of this time and being available for more voices that need you at this time.”

 

Conflictorium is a reminder to stop and reflect, to see ourselves and forget the world. “If we could see ourselves for who we are becoming in the world, we would be in a very different place.” Sethi says.

SCM SOPHIA