The vibrancy of Mirzapur Road in Ahmedabad predates Gujarat’s present and slick tourism campaign. Depending on whether you enter the area from the soon-to-be heritage site of Lal Darwaza or bustling Delhi Chakha, you will pass by, in succession, the Hindu worshippers at Jiya Mata ki Dargah, the basti of manual scavengers and illicit alcohol brewers, the District Court of Gujarat, a domed church, a Nehruvian technical college, and at certain hours of the day, hear the prayers sung at the Shaikh Zahid Masjid.

Nestled behind makeshift homes of the basti-walas, between the Dargah and Masjid, is an unassuming looking one-storey building, painted dove white – this is India’s first Museum of Conflict, also known as The Conflictorium.

Gool Lodge, before it was restored (left), and on April 14, 2013, the day of The Conflictorium's inauguration.

That the basti-folk are familiar with the building is instantly evident to visitors. Children hang from the iron door, women rest on the steps, stray dogs sleep in any available patch of sunlight. The museum is set up to invite interaction. No yellow tape or glass enclosures surround or protect the exhibits, which are meant to engage the visitor. Each piece leads to the next in a pre-planned route, which weaves together the stories of conflicts in Gujarat.

Gujarat’s worst conflict, the riots of 2002, feature in the museum – but so do several other kinds of conflicts. Most visitors, according to Avni Sethi, the 27-year-old design student who started The Conflictorium, still assume 2002 was the first time the state saw any violence.

“The trigger for putting together The Conflictorium was just that – the sheer absurdity of the situation we are in, that mandated the opening of a museum of conflict,” she said.

Sethi began working on creating the museum four years ago, as a thesis project when she was a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Nearly half a decade later, Sethi is still adding to the museum.

“Gujarat is conflict free apparently – that’s something we hear very, very often,” said Sethi. “The other bit is that if you’re talking about conflict then you’re talking about 2002, which is said to be an aberration.”

The museum’s Conflict Timeline then is “an investigation” into the popular history that Gujarat has always been a peace-loving state.

“If we did acknowledge ourselves as a conflict-ridden society, as someone who has had trysts with violence time and again, we would treat ourselves differently, we would think of ourselves as differently,” she added.

Entrance, Kabir's ulat bani.

Sethi is a native Ahmedabadi, and was twelve when the violence broke out. Even if it wasn’t Gujarat’s first communal conflict, “2002 was different”, she said.

“You know the word riot in Gujarati is dhamaal. It actually means fun. You’d ask, ‘shaadi mein dhamaal kiya?’ Or, did you have fun at the wedding? If it was used to describe violence, it was never near where you were, it was always someplace else. But 2002 was different, because the violence, the dhamaal, was not somewhere out there. You were standing on your apartment terrace or looking out of your window and you seeing a landscape burning in front of your eyes. I have such a vivid visual memory of this black smoke going up in places in the entire city.”

The memory, and the idea that somehow even watching the destruction was an act of complicity, was one Sethi could not shake off. “It never left me,” she said.

Room with a political view

Serendipity led to the building of The Conflictorium. Abandoned after its owner, a Parsi woman and Ahmedabad’s first trained hairdresser Bachuben died, the 90-year-old Mirzapur building had been used for everything from a surreptitious drinking spot to a brothel. When several non-government organisations such as Jan Vikas and Centre for Social Justice pitched in to clean it up, Sethi, who was looking for a space to complete her thesis project, joined them.

Sethi and her team have not tried to change the public-access dynamic Mirzapur building has always enjoyed in the city. “It would be easy to get into a process of gentrification and we were aware that we were located in a particular area, that the nucleus of the museum had to be situated in a neighbourhood,” she said.

Using old cabinets bought in Mirzapur Road’s marketplace, The Conflictorium’s team put together a timeline of the Gujarat state’s historic unrests. Starting from May 1, 1960, when the state was born, carved out because of a linguistic dispute with Maharashtra, the Navnirman student agitation in the 1970s, to contemporary moments of 2002.

Section from the Gallery of Disputes, exhibition design by Mansi Thakkar.

From the Timeline, visitors are taken to The Gallery Of Disputes: a maze-like installation where noteworthy conflicts from Indian history are shown using animal protagonists. Horse heads hang from the walls to represent labour, donkeys represent manual scavengers. On one side a cabinet hides what looks like a television news show with monkeys, bears and lions making up the panelists. Sounds of the animal kingdom rage as the cabinet doors are opened.

The exhibit constantly evokes George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Inside an enclosure, pictures of proud animals are captioned “in the resistance against others, the chimpanzees armed with the support of other forest creatures become beacons of righteousness”.

The doctored black and white photographs are poignant because of the idealism they simultaneously challenge and portray. Through the entire exhibit, black metal made hawks perched at various points reminding the visitor that they are under surveillance. The Conflictorium itself is a watched space. While Sethi and her team have never been harassed, she recalls several instances when inviting certain speakers would result in a call from Intelligence Bureau officers who wanted to know why their permission had not been sought.

The museum opens up into a room filled with silhouettes of thought-leaders, cut from wood and painted black. Figures whose ideologies are at odds are often placed facing one another, with a red tape connecting the space between them. Jinnah faces Nehru, Gandhi stands in opposition to Ambedkar. There are no women in the exhibit, even though the team said they searched for them.

A child looks on during the exhibition 'Blue Icon: Contemporary Iterations' – a show that located Ambedkar in the present day, curated by Sudharak Olwe.

“That search gave us an idea about how little space women were afforded in the making of the nation,” said Sethi. The children who visit the museum often mistake Ambedkar for Modi – “It’s the hand,” she said pointing towards the raised arm of Ambedkar’s figure.

A room with a copy of the Constitution holds an ever-changing exhibit, where various fundamental rights and landmark cases are explored. Children and adults, Sethi said, often mistake the book for a religious text. In February 2017, when the museum was exploring the theme of manual scavenging, case laws about untouchability informed this space.

This is the room where Sethi realised that few children or adults had actually seen what the constitution looked like, or had read any part of it. “Many mistook the book for a religious text,” she said. “If the Constitution is the primary compass of a certain kind of modern morality, and it’s not in the consciousness of most people, then what kind of a consciousness was one trying to build, when building the nation?”

Bachuben’s building of memories

On the way to the first floor is an exhibit dedicated to the building’s previous owner, Bachuben. A glamour mirror stands in one corner and the Parsi woman’s hairdressing kit – comb, scissors, round brushes – are placed perpendicular to each other on a white table. The piece includes a voice-over that talks about the city oh Ahmedabad, describing it as Bachuben must have seen it.

“Bachuben Nagarwala was Ahmedabad’s first trained hair dresser – we found her certificate in this building,” said Sethi. “We kind of celebrated that engagement with beauty. That she was Parsi also reflected in the way the neighbourhood engaged with the building and her. This building became some sort of LOC, because on the left is the Devi Puja and on the right are the Muslims. They would throw acid bombs in soda bottles across this building, but never at it. As a young woman, she decided never to marry, she had no children, she died heirless. So, I think she lived a life of courage of a certain kind and maybe exemplified a certain kind of conflict or transformation in the way that she lived.” Beneath The Conflictorium’s tribute to Bachuben is the Memory Lab, a space for personal memorialisation, where visitors can leave objects and notes inside glass jars.

'In This House and That World' - Sound Installation by Avni Sethi.

The Conflictorium does not strike one as a place whose politics are neutral, but it attempts to create a safe space to discuss different ideologies. Sethi and her team hope to broker moments of empathy through an exploration of humanity’s ugliest moments. While The Conflictorium could exist anywhere (visitors from Kashmir had once asked if such a structure could be built in their state), the first one had to be in Gujarat, Sethi said.

“Gujarat has taken on – whether we like it or not, whether we can afford it – a kind of importance in the national logic,” she added. “It has been a laboratory of a certain kind of body politic, therefore to not witness Gujarat and not to catch its pulse would be a grave mistake.”

The museum has just launched a residency programme, which worries the team no end. Could a foreigner come into Mirzapur and interact freely with the neighbourhood? What if a fundamentalist ideologue decides to apply and then endangers the team, or the museum? “Questions keep on arising, we can only find the answers by persisting with what we’re doing,” said Sethi.

Sorry Tree, Balcony of the museum.
Avni Sethi in her office.