TBI Blogs: A Unique Museum in Ahmedabad Is Helping Conflict Victims by Highlighting Their Stories
In a city divided by multiple conflicts over the years, Ahmedabad’s Conflictorium provides a unique look at the impact of these struggles on the city and its people.
“Because it is so important to protect their core belief, they will rationalise, ignore, and even deny anything that doesn’t parlay with it.” Frantz Fanon’s hard-hitting quote, underlying the basic reason for any conflict, is set in a quiet place at the former Gool Lodge, a decrepit, crumbling mansion once owned by a Parsi lady named Bachuben Nagarwala. It has almost been forgotten in the hustle and bustle of the old city of Ahmedabad. Its crumbling facade is flanked by a peepal tree creating tapestries on the wall in the sunlight.
The squawks of caged birds being sold near the haveli’s gates echo through the quiet. A sole sign heralding ‘The Conflictorium’ beckons the true seeker to a one-of-a-kind museum in the city, speaking unabashedly of the various conflicts and controversies the state has witnessed.
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The house had thrown open its gates to all the artists and poets in the city who want to meet to talk about a cause.
Shefali, a young volunteer, looks after the working of the Conflictorium along with Avni Sethi, the artist and dancer whose brainchild this novel concept is. “People don’t want to talk about conflicts. People want to talk about conflict resolution, without understanding the situation or confronting and accepting the conflict. We are a neutral party. We do nothing except put the issue on the table for discussion. Because without accepting the existence of a conflict, achieving resolution is futile.”
The Conflictorium is an archive of all the clashes that have occurred in Gujarat since its inception, including that during its separation from the Bombay Presidency in 1959, and the events of 2013. The museum painstakingly chronicles every riot, every argument, every skirmish, and every disagreement between parties, binding them into tightly bound scrolls that are locked in cabinets fitted along the wall and stored deep in the memories of those who have lived through the violence.
“Ahmedabad is known as the city of conflicts, mainly because of the 2002 riots that scarred our memories. The biggest skirmish between Hindus and Muslims, and the consequent class and racial discrimination that followed, has divided Ahmedabad. Another division that Ahmedabad faces is of the new and old cities.”
“The new city is a hub of the arts—with exhibitions and arts and design colleges—that compels a certain kind of intellectual discussion.”
“The old city, on the other hand, has the general aura of being stuck in time. There still exists a perception that the old city is the trigger for most conflicts that take place in Ahmedabad. The Conflictorium was started to bridge the gap between the two. The location is apt, because it is near a dargah, a mandir, and a cemetery. Manual scavengers and government officials alike reside in the area. The Conflictorium is the epicentre of it all,” says Shefali, a graduate of Conflict Management from Banaras Hindu University.
The museum may be seen by some as an open wound, bleeding, throbbing, and drawing attention to the pain that news dailies attempt to gloss over and neutralise, but it exists nevertheless.
“One of the most important rooms within this space is the one that holds the original copy of the Indian Constitution.” In the museum, all the exhibits are open, free to be touched, felt, and experienced by visitors. The Constitution of India can be leafed through.
It was, after all, meant to be accessible to all, but became veiled by generations of red tape.
The rooms in the Conflictorium are interestingly named—Moral Compass, Empathy Alley, Perspectives, and Gallery of Disputes. There is a memory lab, where an entire wall of glass jars holds exhibits and wishes from visitors. Some proclaim ‘love’. One writes about ‘dignity’. Another speaks of the fundamental rights of human existence.
The peepal tree outside has been dubbed the Sorry Tree, cards bearing names of people and apologies mingling with its leaves. The house is quaint, bearing tell-tale signs of once having been a home. There are basins in the corridors leading to galleries. An old dresser drawer has been converted into an exhibit.
The spaces that once echoed with the sounds of children running, that smelled of cooking, that splashed with washing, and resounded with the cacophony of marital disputes now bear witness to the cries of generations that have been oppressed, whose voices were drowned, but are allowed to be heard once more.
“We hold poetry meetings, artist workshops, and talks on a daily basis. There are times when an issue gets heated, because there are always two sides to a conflict. One team may agree and the other may not. There was an issue once. A gentleman objected to the colour of the walls, which were then green in colour. He exclaimed that Muslims had their colour painted on the walls, but the orange of Hindutva found no place in the museum. It was a coincidence that sometime later we painted the cabinets a shade of orange!”
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Shefali also talks about research and the validity of the conflicts shown, because in such a delicate atmosphere it becomes essential to absolutely confirm the authenticity of the exhibit.
The Centre of Social Justice verifies each article by law, and only then does the Conflictorium put it up for exhibition, presenting it objectively.
People may know Ahmedabad for its internal violent altercations, but Amdavadi society also boasts of a strong network of NGOs that work collectively as a tightly knit group for the betterment of its people. Navsarjan, Nyayka, Drishti, and Natrani are NGOs that have made use of information from the Conflictorium to offer legal and monetary help to the conflict-struck people brought to the forefront through the museum.
“There was a workshop some time ago for women who had faced abuse and domestic violence. We asked them to sketch comic strips to portray their plight. Nyayka managed to fight one woman’s case in court, and won.” Shefali speaks with a certain pride in her voice. The Conflictorium has made a difference through art and dialogue, to some extent achieving what it set out to do.
One exhibit called the ‘Power of New’ states, “If two entities have to occupy the same space, must one of them blend into and become subservient to the other? Is there a third space that is beyond polarity, but opens up the possibility of something new?” The third space is of acceptance. Perhaps it is reluctant acceptance. But healing always follows.
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