Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 30, 2020

When I started working on the idea of the Conflictorium, I never thought that I’d be speaking at a history conference. Although, I think, the crux of what we are dealing with is very much history. I will talk about the Conflictorium in some detail, but I also want to attempt an auto-ethnography in the beginning.

ccccToday I am going to speak from three positions. The first: as someone who grew up in Ahmedabad city, someone who was 12 years old when the 2002 riots happened and, therefore, rendered a witness for the rest of her life. The second: as a dancer, a performer—in some senses, a cultural practitioner. But as a cultural practitioner for whom, growing up in Ahmedabad city, not much opportunity was available. There was a lot of infrastructure in Ahmedabad per se, several institutions of excellence which have been so for many years. But they were not available until you had certain cultural capital. The third position, probably the more critical position, is as someone who is trained in design but was interested in moving away from the problem–solution framework that, until a couple of years ago, was imagined to be the primary purpose of design. Maybe that is changing now. So those are the three positions that I am going to speak from today.

ccccFor those of you who are familiar with Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati—now more like a canal because of the river- front project—runs through the centre of the city, dividing it into two parts but not two equal parts. There are binaries of several kinds—there are binaries of economics, of minority and majority, of the old city and the new city, of what the imagination of justice and its absence is across these two parts, and which kinds of histories these two different sides believe is their heritage. I am using the word ‘heritage’ very consciously because we are embroiled in this euphoria of being called a ‘World Heritage City’, the first Heritage City in the country, etc. Where I work at the moment is in the old part of the city, in an area called Mirzapur. It takes about 23 to 27 seconds every morning to cross the river using one of the several bridges. And in those 27 seconds, on the Ellis Bridge to be precise, worldviews change, paradigms shift, landscapes morph, languages transform, rules of how you relate to people are renegotiated. And those 27 seconds—twice a day—push you to occupy very uncomfortable positions while you are either in the old city or in the new city, none of which become comfortable again.

ccccIn Mirzapur, there lived a lady called Bachu Nagarwala. She was a Parsi woman. She never married, she never had children, she died at the age of 92—and she lived in a mansion which she decided she would donate. She didn’t know for what, but she knew for something good.

ccccI discovered her story much later—I never met her. I only met her through the house that she lived in and the objects in that house. She was Ahmedabad city’s first trained hairstylist. In 1942, she went to Bombay and came back with a certificate in hairstyling. There is a particular class and age of women in Ahmedabad who have all been at least once to Bachuben Nagarwala’s house to get their hair cut. They might have liked it or not because of who she was—very, very strict about keeping appointments, etc.—but a lot of people in at least one part of the city were aware of that building. In 2012, I was just finishing studying design at Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology in Bangalore and thinking of a diploma project. I was interested in working with space, in particular, and I was certain I wanted to come back to Ahmedabad. Because while I was at design school, I was a very angry student—I was angry about everybody wanting to do graphic design or product design or automobile design. I think being a witness makes you angry, keeps you angry, even after ten years. I decided I would go back to Ahmedabad and find a project, so I could do something about this anger, maybe find a temporary resolution.

ccccI was directed to this building donated by Bachuben Nagarwala to an organization called Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) that has been working in Gujarat and four other states, for access to justice. They’ve been donated this building and have been using it as a sort of storeroom for case files. It was a fairly dilapidated building. Mirzapur in particular has had a notorious reputation for a long time, so much so that it comes under the ‘Disturbed Areas Act’ in Ahmedabad. Which means that the Rapid Action Force is very often present. This is the prerequisite condition before the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) can be brought into effect.

ccccOne entered the building almost with a feeling of entering a house of wonders. It had acquired an afterlife even when she was alive. She used to live on the first floor and she barely had any family or relatives except maybe a wellwisher or friend who lived close by. As she grew old and weak, she was taken care of by a caretaker who, over time, sold off her belongings. But this building also started being used as a place to consume illegal alcohol brewed behind it; it was rented out by the hour to sex workers to ply their trade, and other things like that. We discovered a truckload of thailees or kotharees, as we call them in Gujarati—little pouches in which alcohol is packaged. And condoms too. We also found, among video reels of the Mahabharata television series, the tools she used in her salon. And a whole bunch of objects you would find in any home at any point of time—cassettes, bedsheets and vessels, everyday objects. That was the moment. It was overwhelm- ing, but the question was: What does one do with this building? There is, of course, the work of 25–30 years that Centre for Social Justice and other allied organizations such as Janvikas and Navsarjan have been doing. And they are the people who are supporting it. So, the backbone of this project was set in place by civil society, in some sense. But I was also a ‘civil society baby’—my parents were people who worked with NGOs, my entire environment consisted of people working in the development sector. There was something I intuitively wanted to respond to in terms of the methods being used by them, and I didn’t have any way of qualifying why I was critiquing this or the language.

ccccWe started working on this building and, in about nine months’ time, we fixed it. But while we were fixing the building, we had to be at the building continuously. And you cannot just be at the building—you are within the building, you are without the building, you are outside and inside. And then it is no longer just the building but also where the building is located. Within a 500-metre radius of that building live the Devi Pujak community, the Muslims and the community that does manual scavenging work. We were squeezed between the Chalte Peer Ki Dargah, the Sai Baba Temple and the CNI church. The District Court is down the road and the first Technical College right in front.

ccccWe are physically located in the middle of, you may say, diversity—but you may also say difference. Or if one really wants to acknowledge it for what it is, then in the middle of aggression, the tipping point. It takes very little for a small brawl in this part of Mirzapur to become a stone-pelting event and then escalate into something that needs the army to come in. It can hit that range in about 30 minutes, after somebody hits a cycle with a scooter! We were trying to understand what this neighbourhood was really about on the one hand, and what these organizations had been doing on the other. One way of understanding this was that we were in the middle of conflict. Conflict was a term—an idea rather—that felt like it encompassed the nuances of all that was going on. Not only in Mirzapur but also what underlay Ahmedabad as a city and Gujarat as a state. We knew only too well that Gujarat was a laboratory of a certain kind of political work that would certainly then be replicated on a large scale outside. One was aware in 2012/13 of what was coming. So keeping all that in mind, it seemed that conflict as a category would allow us to have several conversations.

ccccThe framework used for putting the space together was that you would enter it, you would touch and feel, look and read. It was essentially driven by a somatic, tactile experience: by entering the building, you were going to be enter- ing the realm of emotion, of feeling, maybe of transformation, of reflection. To bring it back to a 2-dimensional space is going to be difficult, but I am going to try it listing the kinds of installations that there are in the building.

ccccThe first is the Conflict Timeline. One of the questions that often came up in early brainstorming sessions with all kinds of people, with college students, with children in the neighbourhood, with members of civil society, with academics, was: ‘Why are you creating a museum of conflict?’ For two reasons: One, we are in the state of Gandhi, the state of non-violence and, therefore the state ‘where conflict does not happen.’That’s been the over-arching perception of Gujarat—there is very little acknowledgement that violence exists. 2002 is imagined as an aberration for this largely peaceful state.This, of course, we know is not true. Two, as an answer to another question we often faced:‘Why are you creating a museum at all?’ There are approximately 30 museums in Ahmedabad city alone, with an abysmal average footfall in each. If you take out the Swaminarayan Mandir Museum, then the footfall is below the hundreds— annually. So, why one more museum?

ccccWe had to answer both these questions to go ahead with the project. The issue of conflict in Gujarat was answered easily through the timeline itself. The state of Gujarat was separated from the Bombay Presidency in 1960. Its formation, simply put, was a result of a linguistic conflict, one among many undercurrents. And there were many more such conflicts to bring back to active memory.With the idea of the museum itself we were being ambitious, we were thinking maybe we could think through what the museum as an idea has stood for and whether we could open up those definitions and those meanings and implications a little bit when we attempted this project, this Museum of Conflict. Therefore, a question you might want to ask later is: ‘Why won’t you just call yourself a Centre for Conflict through the Arts?’ or something like that. About why the museum as a category became important for us to work with. Needless to say, museums in India have largely been state-run and, therefore, generating knowledge of the past has been the domain of the State. Legitimizing particular historical narratives has therefore been one of the functions of the state-run museums. And that, at least in Gujarat within that laboratory framework, became such a frightening idea that one could not ignore that the idea of the museum was what we had to start working with.

ccccOne of the galleries in this museum is called the Gallery of Disputes. While the timeline is more anecdotal, this is more conceptual, and it opens up the conflict around gender, caste, labour, the media, by personifying the animal world. When we were talking to young people about the validity of such an idea, one phrase that was used very often was: ‘Why are you raising the dead from the grave?’We realized that the moment there is a tone of accusation, or a feel- ing of being implicated, there is a shutdown mechanism that comes into play. But we still wanted to talk, we still wanted to generate dialogue. So we said maybe if we trans- late some of these ideas into the animal world, we can achieve a safe space. This was more a strategy than a curatorial decision—and I am looking towards the schoolteachers at this moment—a strategy just to begin a conversation around some of these very charged, tension-creating ideas.

ccccThere is a room right after the Gallery of Disputes called the Empathy Alley which attempts a very simple idea: it looks at the nation and at the thought-leaders involved in the process of nation-building. And it highlights the fact that there were differences while this nation was coming together, while it was being built. There wasn’t one fixed way in which people were thinking about the Constitution either. But what are these fault lines? Or how do these fault lines translate into where we are standing today?

ccccSo, while we are walking through the gallery, children are involved in the exercise of identifying who is who in terms of simple silhouettes. Some of these silhouettes also have audio features—the speeches made by them. In this room, standing opposite Nehru is Jinnah, and one of the fault lines is between Nehru and Jinnah. Of course, the children do not recognize Jinnah’s silhouette, but I realized that the ability to recognize Ambedkar is also really low. The silhouette of Babasaheb Ambedkar is the classic silhouette with one finger pointing forward. Many children have identified him as the present prime minister in the recent past.

ccccWe move to the next room which, in effect, hosts the Constitution—an exact replica on a pedestal. Every now and then, we curate laws from the Constitution and high- light them through panels. We have in the past highlighted laws pertaining to untouchability, gender, forest rights, etc. Let me share an anecdote: Of course, there are a lot of questions and answers when children come and walk through the galleries. One of the questions I ask is, ‘What is this book on the pedestal?’ And the response invariably depends on what religious group the child belongs to. It automatically becomes either this book or that.The imagination we are bound today as citizens is derived from the Constitution. The consciousness that our Indianness lies in a constitutional morality is absolutely absent. A lot of the children hear the word Samvidhaan for the first time in this room. By the time you have walked past the Constitution, it seems like conflict is a distant thing. Rather, it’s about countries, it’s about time that has passed and that’s when you come to the next room which is called the Memory Lab.

ccccThere are simple pickle jars with little tags, and the tags read—date, object name, story. That’s it. What the Memory Lab is asking you to do is to participate by adding an object from your life that represents some form of personal conflict, you can put it there and put down your story. If you want to, you can put down your name—but you don’t have to. What happens over time is that the idea that conflict is large/outside/faraway gets dismantled. Conflict is also small, conflict is also interpersonal, and navigating conflict is a skill we never develop because we never think of conflict as something we need to talk about. We continuously shove it under the carpet and never realize how lasting the effects are, that we are inching from a suppressed personal conflict to aggression to violence is never visible. These Memory Jars have objects like cigarette packets signifying that this is the object that is responsible for the key conflict between me and my parents; or broken bangles where women are talking about moments of violence in the home. So it traverses a wide spectrum of conflict that ultimately gets connected to a room that they have seen earlier but the assimilation is slow. From what seems political, social, large we arrive at the personal—a continuous interplay between the personal and the political in some senses.

ccccThere is a sound installation under the stairwell about Bachuben Nagarwala and her life called ‘In this House and That World’. It is an intimate experience, a somewhat voyeuristic view of her life and her choices but also an invitation to begin a journey of discovering the building, an invitation to participate in a process of reflection.