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Collecting History beyond Artefacts: Reflections on the Conflictorium - Avni Sethi


Updated: Mar 1, 2022

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 overwhelming, 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 entering 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 feeling 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 translate 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 highlight 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.

ccccThe first floor has the Sorry Tree. Apology is such a political act in Gujarat specifically and elsewhere generally. But it also stems from our concern about how difficult it had been for a lot of people to occupy spaces alongside survivors of violence. I wondered if an inability to apologize was a cultural problem—this is only a proposal, I am not certain about whether we didn’t learn to say sorry or we haven’t produce spaces where you can say sorry. Visitors write personal notes behind printed cards that say ‘I am sorry’ and tie them to the tree. This is towards the end of the tour, so you have been in the building for an hour and fifteen minutes before you reach the Sorry Tree. And some of the things that people have written have been so absolutely moving. There are testimonies of what they might have done (without names), some times of shame, of embarrassment, also of love and longing.

ccccThe museum uses the two floors slightly differently. The ground floor comprises conceptually fixed spaces—the display may or may not change. For example, the Constitution is fixed in that room, but how it is displayed might change.The first floor, on the other hand, has only temporary exhibits—exhibits that last for about a month and a half, two months. One of the larger exhibition we hosted is called Blue Icon: Contemporary Reiterations. It was curated by Sudharak Olwe who has been photographing manual scavengers and talking about what it means—for him—to be a Dalit photographer.

Another exhibition we displayed earlier this year is called Micro subversions Playbook. It was looking at everyday resistance.

ccccOne of the things we do while we put together an art exhibition is to ask, of course: What kind of art? What kind of thematics? But, also, who are these artists? Who is it whose work is on display? That is an important question that one is asking continuously because, otherwise, in the contemporary art space, it’s so easy to get lost in abstraction on the one hand and market driven choices on the other. So, we are always asking the questions: What, How and Why—and never losing sight of the ‘Who’.

ccccWe have also hosted an artist called Rollie Mukherjee who painted on the themes of half-widows and disappearances in Kashmir for about four and a half years; we supported this exhibition at the Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and travelled with it to Srinagar, to Calcutta. There came a time when we realized that it was important to slowly break away from Ahmedabad and Gujarat, because a lot of people were coming and telling us that they wanted to do the same thing where they were. A lot of schools came and said that they could do this back in their school, whether it was building shelves and putting jars with tags. And I realized that, slowly, step by step, we were going to have to move into other contexts that invite us. That we didn’t want to be a prescriptive museum in any sense, not about our con- tent nor the context we worked in. So, we waited for people to come to the museum, waited for them to figure out how it may be relevant to their context and then we facilitated similar things wherever they were.

ccccAnother exhibition we curated was Imagining a Forest, which looked at forests and our relationship with them, which tried to explore the complexity between the urban and the forest. An exhibition like this involved even PILs on display, for example, that have been filed by Paryavaran Mitra, an organization that works with the environment in Gujarat. Side by side, there are paintings by artists like Raju Patel from Dang. An exhibition like this—and every other we try and do—involves a cross-section of voices and positions. It is not that everybody believes in one idea, it is not a neatly curated exhibition of convergent voices. There might be people within the exhibition who disagree with each other. For every event that is done within the museum, for all the testimonies in whatever form, whether as tags on the Sorry Tree or whether as stories, one is also aware that we are in a neighbourhood. A lot of us who work at the museum come from the other side of the city. Now quite a few people from the neighbourhood also work at the museum. How are we relevant to the immediate neighbourhood? In the vicinity are wedding bands who practice and have their shops. So we have done an event with these bands, and shared communication on social media. The posters were made like conference posters and put up at cafes and universities. Such events are positioned as open events for people to cross over from the other side of the river. And a lot of people do, imagining that this is going to be a gallery event. So we have audiences who would typically not engage in events like this.

ccccThis kind of dialogue or cultural production that occurs, with and by artists, practitioners, audiences, students crossing the river to be witnesses—these are conversations that are valuable to the Conflictorium process. Children who live close to Mirzapur come into the building with a sense of ownership in their stride. It is a porous building, so they hang out at the building. Once, they said: ‘We want to do a newspaper of Mirzapur because there’s so much happening in our neighbourhood, and we have seen how you put up paintings, and we want to put up these newspapers as paintings.’ This was their idea.They even insisted they wanted ID cards as reporters. So, we put together ID cards for them and they put together a newspaper on Mirzapur. They went about and collected stories about their neighbourhood.

These are just some of the examples I wanted to share with all of you. Within these examples are embedded some of the strategies to begin a process of transformation rooted essentially in the self.



Srilika Chatterjee. I am from Mangalore. It was quite fascinating for me to know that you can have a museum dedicated to conflict. Because the moment you use the word ‘conflict’, a person like me, an average social-science student, immediately thinks that conflict means political conflict which has a profound historical significance. But I find that you have taken that many steps ahead in representing conflict even in our personal lives. This is a new take on conflict for me. I would like to ask whether your project has created a space or dedicated a space for the lady, that particular lady who, in 1942, had earned a professional degree to be a hairstylist? I am sure she, and other such gentle ladies of that era, must have also gone through their own quota of conflict. So, did you take that initiative to dig around and find out what she must have gone through, trying to achieve social acceptance as a trained hairstylist during that time?

Sethi. We have an installation that is dedicated to her life and her practice and that really culls out what it could have been for a woman like that to be practising hairstyling at that time. It is an eight-and-a-half- minute audio piece and quite an experience to sit there and listen to. So, yes, we do have something like that at the museum.

Audience Member 1. At the outset of the presentation you mentioned that you would also be talking and thinking about this from the position of being a dancer. I would like to hear a little bit about that.

Sethi. You have touched an emotional nerve there. This is an experience for a lot of middle-class children across Tier 1, 2 and 3 cities. If you are interested in music, dance, painting, a statement often hurled at you is: ‘You can’t make a career out of this.’ ‘It is great as a hobby, but you can’t take it seriously.’ I often wonder if there were spaces or platforms in Ahmedabad city that were available to me, where I could confidently go back and say that I don’t have to have cultural capital to build a career in dance. I would have been in a better position to have negotiated that. Why I’m bringing in this personal story is that we had some fantastic institutions in Ahmedabad but they have become isolated. Islands of sorts. I know so many young people who were interested but who had no place to test whether they could be good at this. I think what the Conflictorium attempted to do was open up the notion that you don’t have to be an expert to be here. You may not have fantastic skills, but you may want to say something—so, why don’t you use this platform! I don’t know for how long, because these things also change. Cultural capital is built over 10 years, and institutions that start out as alternative often become mainstream, I am aware of the pitfalls of all of that, but at least we can do it for 10 years. This was the analysis back in 2013 and, today, if I were to make an analysis, there are at least 10 new backyard spaces that have opened, that are doing cultural work. That was a paradigm shift that was very important.

Audience Member 2. Thank you for a very emotional and thought-provoking presentation. I have three quick questions for you, stemming from our own experience right now in trying to conceptualize and plan a mobile museum, focussing on history and dealing with the past in Sri Lanka. My first question is: What is in for them, the community that is directly affected, whose conflict you have depicted through material culture? The second: Have you involved this community in the initial curation of this museum? And the third: What is the sense of ownership this community has over this museum?

Sethi. At the outset, I want to ask : Who is ‘the community’? Because there is a tendency in this kind of work to say that ‘we work with the community’. In the case of Mirzapur, there is no singular community. There are 10 people who live on one side, who cannot bear the sight of the other 10 people who live a hundred metres away. There is no homogenous, single community. There are the Devi Pujaks and the Muslims, and then there is the Conflictorium—they are all disparate. But the thing is that at no point do we imagine ourselves as outsiders who are playing a facilitation role. We are part of that community, we have as much at stake. Therefore, I don’t know whether I am comfortable with saying that we work with the ‘community’. Of course, there is power play of a different kind on an everyday basis: they are deeply aware that we are not here to help in any way. It is up to them to find meaning in the things that we do. For example, for three years, there was an open dump right outside the build- ing. Then someone in the area had an idea that this was an opportunity for a bit of entrepreneurship—they cleaned up the dump that had been there for about 15 years and put up a food stall. And now when people come for events and exhibitions, after they have finished at the museum, they go and eat there. So, there are new avenues—by virtue of this place—of doing something.

ccccBut we have also had disagreements. For example, we had a boundary wall which had one window. We thought of putting in another to get more light. Just outside the window is the street and then homes. A group of 10 came in with lathis and said they wouldn’t let us make another window—because when people came to this building, they would be able to look out into their houses. So we stopped.

ccccThere is conflict, but there is also resolution. For instance, when there is a performance going on which is looking at silence and very minimal movement, that is inevitably the day when someone’s daughter is get- ting married and they are having the sangeet right next to us! That also happens. The resolution was: we requested them to reduce the volume for about two hours; by way of return I said, ‘I will come to the wed- ding and dance.’ They asked, ‘Will you really come?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ So, you never know what gets thrown at you.

ccccThis question of ownership—I would say that the people from across the river are as much the ‘community’ that we are working with. They come and use the space. A lot of people are using the space and making meaning in their own lives in small ways which are out- side our language of impact. Somehow ‘impact’ finds no answers in what we do. But it’s a big word for anybody who is working with sponsors, I guess.

Shaguni Bhattacharya. I am from Delhi Public School, Pune. I just wanted to ask you: What are the kind of challenges you faced to begin with? Because you are perceived as coming from a very patronizing place and deciding what you need to do for that place—especially when you are dealing with the people who, I am sure, may have considered you as the other. You wanting to do something in an area which is surrounded by, from their perception, somebody else—whom they don’t identify with. So, what were the initial challenges you faced when you thought of this idea?

Sethi. I think the small advantage for us was the absence of a homogenous group. They are all so diverse. There is another Parsi house there—a three-storeyed house, it has its own politics, it’s called the Parsi Haveli. It is really a mixture. In those days, within that kind of mixture, we didn’t really stand out in a very big way. But that is not always the case and may not always be the case. This question of being a patronizing presence that you were talking about, we are very conscious of being that kind of presence. You are saying ‘patronizing’, I would take it a step forward and say we also bring the danger of gentrification into the area. One is aware of these things, and at an organizational, cultural level, one needs to deal with it. Every single day. It can’t be a one- off thing—that you do one event here and one event there and then you’ve balanced it out. It doesn’t work like that.

Chintan Girish Modi. I work for the Education for Peace initiative at Prajnya in Chennai. What I found really interesting is that this presentation is happening in a History for Peace conference. Because, in a lot of discussions about peace, there is a tendency to not engage in violence or conflict at all. There is a tendency to directly move to this imagination of a wonderland almost, where everything is harmonious. I am glad that you are focussing on conflict. At the same time, I would like to ask you: How do you perceive the relationship between conflict and violence? I heard you speak of conflict only as something we do not wish to see or that we want to transform into something else. But would you also think of conflict as generative, because from conflicts can emerge new structures that are probably a lot better than the ones before? For example, the feminist engagement conflict is essential to imagining a world that is more equal. I also really enjoyed what you said about the Sorry Tree. It made me think of meditative spaces at the Holocaust Museum in DC and the Museum of African-American Culture. So to look at how art and healing—and that connection—can happen in a museum space. Because, from what we heard yesterday and the day before, a lot of the unimaginative government museums don’t have this space for delving within. You are making that possible, so thank you so much for that.

Sethi. Thanks. I see your point about conflict being generative. The Conflictorium and the Gulbarg Memorial were announced together in a newspaper report. The Gulbarg Memorial is attempting an artefact-based, memory-based remembering of an event which is important. But the question is whether people want to remember. What about forgetting? Those are the kinds of questions I was asking at that point of time. Even now, I continue to feel unsure or uncomfortable, as a practitioner, to enter into this space in a prescriptive manner. Maybe that’s what opened up the option of saying: Let’s talk about conflict, let’s talk about why we are doing this. Can it snowball into some sort of resolution?

ccccCan we bring out what people don’t want to talk about? Sometimes conversations that start off very cordially after a film or performance at the Conflictorium become very, very heated. There are many disagreements, there’s a lot of anger. But that anger, because it’s triggered by a literary piece or a performance piece, is felt in a deeply moving way. And the people continue to engage with the Conflictorium no matter which side they are on. So, conflict is generative for sure. But what are the triggers and do we have the facilitation skills to transform it from upheaval to being generative?

ccccI think that is something that we also struggle with. It’s not like we know it all. But we are aware that we will have to work with it.

Aatreyee Ghosh. I engage in community arts with my partner. Someone here mentioned that there was nothing called advocacy there. I like the fact that you allowed people to get back to you. This is coming from a social sector background. You were quite conscious about making some breaks. We too work with the social sector and we often see the difficulties. What also seemed overarching, even with Abeer’s project and yours, is that you are living that. There is no difference. I am sure you sometimes forget that it is a project, when you are dancing at a wedding there, and that is important, that celebratory thing about it not only being a part of the museum space . . . the spill-overs, the borders and boundaries are redefined every time. It is very evident and very clear. Thank you so much.

Sethi. Thank you.

Audience Member 3. I have two quick questions because I am in events. That is the first thing that struck me: How do you decide what performances or what exhibitions are important enough to put up in the Conflictorium? Second, at the beginning of the presentation you mentioned that this is generally a very disturbed area where the Rapid Action Force is always ready to come in. How do you get people there? Because there is always this thing at the back of people’s minds that ‘What happens if we get stuck there? So, we won’t go for this performance.’ How do you get people excited enough to come there and participate in something like this?

Sethi. For the first two years, what you are speaking of was very real for us: the fear of crossing the river. But maybe because everybody who works at the museum has had conversations with someone in their building, someone in their neighbourhood, who has asked, ‘You are going to Mirzapur, aren’t you scared?’ And they have said, ‘No, I go there every day.’ Then they will turn around and say, ‘I haven’t been there in all the 45 years of my life, despite living in Ahmedabad.’ So, yes, we were up against perceptions built on prejudice. At some point we decided we had to start doing something every day, or three events a week. And for the first two years, we would sometimes have only six people turn up. But at least the word spread as did the notion that we were doing something not available anywhere else. I think we had to spend a lot of strategic time, if I may use that word, in branding, so that we could get audiences from across the river to come and engage with this content. So that was the strategy at that time, which changed over time. More people know about it in Ahmedabad. Now, we don’t have six people, we have 46 people, sometimes we have 100 and we have to say, ‘We don’t have space!’ But I feel that these are also curves, and we will have to immediately respond to these too as the landscape changes.

ccccOne thing we tend to respond to is: what is coming up in the media in a big way? What is the media silent about? Who is not acknowledging what? The immediate becomes one way of deciding. On the other hand, we go through a planning process and say, ‘Can we, through a year of curation, show voices that have seldom been represented? That becomes one curatorial method. We often put out calls for application—‘If you have something, why don’t you bring it?’ The question to ask is: In what places do you disseminate those calls for application? Of course, you have your social media and so on, but you also have to do it the old way of putting posters out in colleges on this side of the river. You still have to use channels beyond social media.

Vanshica Kant. As somebody who has an academic train- ing in history, I find it more fascinating than a lot of the projects and initiatives being used in public spaces to bring history from the realm of the academic space into a larger public discourse, and that it is being led by individuals like you who don’t necessarily have a background in that subject, and who come from, say, a background of design or filmmaking and so on. I’d like to know, when you were ideating this project— because the concepts deal with conflict at the local, regional, probably even national levels, (you mentioned that one portion had leaders from the national movement and so on) and you are dealing with spaces which look at collective and individual memories of conflict—did you have a team of people from other back- grounds as well? How would different individuals from different backgrounds react to a curation like this? Because you are cutting across themes like caste, religion, gender and so on. So how would it cater to a wider audience not only in terms of individual back- grounds, socio-economically, in terms of academic experience, but also on other levels? And second, you mentioned that you are trying to attempt to (if I followed correctly) move beyond this space, taking conflict and curation to where it is actually needed. To communities that are outside, communities experiencing conflict. If you can speak a little more about that? You’ve created the space—but how do you evolve from here?

Sethi. I want to quickly respond to this aspect of taking work where it is needed. If I talk about it in the context of Kashmir, and about taking the exhibition there, I don’t agree at all to the idea of ‘where it is needed’. Because where it is probably needed most is in Gujarat, for people in Gujarat to see what is happening to people in Kashmir. The conflict is in Kashmir but it needs to be viewed here more than it needs to be viewed there. There they are living it. The conflict is also influenced by a whole group of other people who are not engaging or directly involved in the conflict at all but are building a perception about it and thereby influencing policy. Are those the mindsets that we can change? Very often it may involve showing work where the conflict is not happening, or it might involve working with audiences who might be perpetrators more often than victims. I am not saying that one is more important than the other. But what the Conflictorium often tries to do is work with multiple perspectives. And your other question, I think it is a short answer: Yes, we did work with several kinds of expertise, from ethnography, from journalism, from history. But it was really like a design-thinking workshop. When we all came together in a room and said, ‘How do we feel about this and how can you, from your discipline, respond? ’The point was also to really become interdisciplinary—how a historian can also have a point of view about design and representation, how a designer can imagine how an analysis can be done.

Audience Member 4. Thank you for a wonderful, really moving experience. I have two or three questions. One is that you talked about the jars of conflict—is this by invitation? Do people going in there actually put in an object or something? So, if they happen to have that object with them at that moment and then they write, and then, afterwards, what do you do with that? Those mountains of objects?

Sethi. Often, visitors who come to the Conflictorium come multiple times. Also because there are both fixed and temporary works. Often, on their first visit, even if they don’t have an object, some of them are moved to come back with an object and put it there. That space is open. What do we do with the objects? We are now in our fifth year and we have begun to archive all these objects and stories, and put them all together, hopefully, into a publicly accessible archive on a website, on a web-based platform. But for the past five years, it’s really been about the collecting. We are a very small museum. That has been an advantage, it has allowed us to do the kind of things we have done at that scale, and to really think through one idea for a very long time— on the proverbial slow flame. It is really now that we are building an online archive of these stories, even of the Sorry Tree tags, for example—they are also photographed. But with the Sorry Tree tags, I think we are OK with them decaying and sort of passing away with the tree—I think that would be in the spirit of how that tags were put up.

Audience Member 5. The acknowledgment of conflict and the inescapable nature of conflict in our lives is so important. But as I grow older, I find that our children are being brought up with a lack of acknowledgement of conflict, and the lack of the ability to listen. To me, it seems that lies at the root of so much. Are you making any deliberate attempts to getting younger children in, to reflect on these things, to listen and how to listen and all of that?

Sethi. Yes, we do work with children and we do reach out to schools and involve them. In fact, we have some bylines and tags that we keep using, like: ‘Keep talking, keep listening.’ I will give you an example which perhaps adds to what you mention. In Ahmedabad, the project of segregation is almost complete. Therefore, you can be a child of 12 in Ahmedabad city and go through life without encountering the other of any kind. Schools are different, public parks are different, cinema halls are absolutely different. There is no rule— it is just an unsaid understanding. We are talking about lack of acknowledging conflict. There is no opportunity for encounter at this point of time— no encountering difference and what it means. And the next step which is acknowledging the results of difference— either being in conflict with it or celebrating it.

Audience Member 6. I was really struck by what you said about Ahmedabad being so segregated. I had no clue it was this severe. And in light of that, if the city is so segregated, how is it that you manage to pull in both populations?

Sethi. Civil-society methods and ideas on both sides are quite reified. A lot of civil society that wants to do good work also finds it difficult when an encounter with a different kind of mindset happens. It is not helpful to combat opinion with opinion. The advantage of working within the arts or cultural realm is that it is not based on an opinion or in the cognitive space. A lot of it is based on how I feel, how an artwork moves me. I can’t articulate it, I feel uncomfortable, I don’t know how I feel—these are the kinds of responses that art practice has the ability to bring out. I think that is what makes it possible at that moment to draw in multiple perspectives that might be divergent.

Anjum Katyal. I was intrigued by the fact that you talked about how one is completely segregated. Yet, you also said that the space you are in is so completely diverse.

Sethi. The place in the city where there is that diversity, there is a ‘disturbed area’ label put on it. I think the kind of content that we bring in and the fact that we often personally go and invite people—that helps. For example, if we do a performance on Soz Khwani, which is telling the story of Karbala, we make it a point to visit and invite the people who are right outside our building, from the Devi Pujak community. It is also interesting that both the Rath Yatra and the Moharram processions pass through right outside the building. Those are days when we have to shut the museum, because it’s just too volatile. Ritual practices of the perceived other have a chance to be demystified. That which is unknown becomes alien.You fear alien, and when you fear alien that translates into hatred, into violence and so on. And because Soz seems like a song, an aesthetic experience, it doesn’t feel wrong to be in that room. So a lot of curatorial processes are actually strategic processes. How do you bring people together to just discover differences?


Avni Sethi is an interdisciplinary practitioner with her primary concern lying between culture, memory, space and the body. She studied Interdisciplinary Design from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore and pursued a Masters in Performance Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She conceptualized and designed the Conflictorium.

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