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The moment you start acknowledging that conflict exists is when the possibility of transformation occurs, says founder of the Conflictorium, Ahmedabad, Avni Sethi, who was down in Goa. NT BUZZ finds out more about the museum and her vision

Narratives of conflict

ANNA FERNANDES | NT BUZZ

As part of the MOG Sunday series at Museum of Goa, Pilerne founder of the Conflictorium, Avni Sethi was invited to speak about the Ahmedabad-based museum’s imagination of the alternative, the practice of evidence building and its relationship with failure. In conversation with NT BUZZ, Sethi speaks about integrating art, law, history and culture to promote dialogue about the nature of conflict and the possibility of resolution and reconciliation.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. The Conflictorium opened in 2013 and has since been home to diverse critical explorations on conflict transformation and art practice. How did you conceptualise the idea of setting it up?

The more I think about this question, the more I realise that there wasn’t really an ‘aha’ moment as such. Rather, I think the Conflictorium came about as a sum total of the experiences and the kind of conditions around me.

I was studying interdisciplinary design at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, and designed the Conflictorium as my graduation project. The seeds of the idea were always present in the ecosystem that I grew up in and in the conversations on social justice that were brewing.

So, setting up this museum was a natural progression.

Q. How does the Conflictorium subvert the traditional museum set-up?

The whole idea of the private museum in India is a very new idea. In India, museums have largely been state-run, and when you have a state-run museum it implies that the narratives it holds are state narratives. And it raises questions about history and history-writing and what is this idea of legitimacy of historical facts. Who is creating the art? Who is it for? Whose voice has space? And how do we start having these conversations without being threatening, or occupying a moral high ground?

Setting up the Conflictorium was certainly an attempt at questioning legitimacies of narratives and being able to influence them.

The museum also takes you on a fairly introspective journey – it pushes you to be self-reflective, to examine your own volition and beliefs. And so, there are moments in the museum that see visitors being very emotional or very agitated or in a very heightened sense of emotionality. The museum seeks to introspect on many conflicting polarities through the lens of empathy.

For a city like Ahmedabad, after the 2002 riots, there has been a kind of collective amnesia. And it’s not only been about the 2002 riots, we have had an amnesia about conflict and violence across time. The tendency is to not speak about it and to shove it under the carpet. But what that eventually does is produce more violence because it is unresolved and brewing. The idea of the Conflictorium was to produce a platform to acknowledge conflict. The moment you start acknowledging that conflict exists that’s when the possibility of transformation occurs.

Q. They say there are two sides to every story. So how does one stay objective in narrating the various conflicts and controversies the state has witnessed?

For example, the methodology at the museum is not anecdotal, it is not through historical artefacts – rather it uses the medium of art. Here, the positionality of the spectator is what is key. Through the museum, we try to portray that there are, in fact, several points of view – not just two – but several. So, you, as a spectator, get to pick yours. We are not prescribing any point of view but we try to showcase them all.

Q. Being in a state that is characterised by violence, how do you chronicle its history through the museum? Specifically, the Gujarat riots of 2002 that’s still etched in the minds of

Indians?

At the museum, there is one exhibit called the ‘conflict timeline’ and this timeline starts in 1960 which is when the state of Gujarat was formed. Before that it was the Bombay presidency. Interestingly, we tend to believe that Gujarat has largely been a non-violent state. But even at the moment of origin there was a linguistic conflict. Gujarat’s violent underbelly has existed throughout. Therefore, to say that the 2002 riots was an aberration to a largely peaceful time would be a misconception. They sit on the same plane as all of the other conflicts that Gujarat has seen, and are chronicled alongside the riots of 1969, the Navnirman Andolan of 1974 and the Machchhu dam failure of 1979 to name a few.

Through the museum, we illustrate the conflicts and their causes through storytelling, using animal characters and other devices to ensure that the narratives remain universally accessible, and in the process speak more holistically about how conflicts begin and how they can be resolved.

Q. According to you how can victims of the conflicts in history find justice and reconcile with the violence and hatred of the past?

In the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past, there are commissions tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing like The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and similar processes. But I also hold apology and dialogue as a starting point of resolution.

In the context of India, apology has been difficult to come by – especially politically.

There have been massacres, but the people who have been responsible have never even acknowledged the violence.

Personally, I don’t know if resolution or reconciliation is a valid concept in such cases. There is so much historical baggage, so much trauma, so much violence; that reconciliation seems insufficient. That’s the thing about violence – it changes us permanently. There’s no going back to what we were like earlier.

So, while I’m not sure whether reconciliation is possible, attempting to transform conflict into something positive could bring some solace.

Q. What is your long-term vision for society?

In a time when nationalism is being shoved down our throats so much more than it ever was before – at this moment I cannot think of a more pressing need than equality. It is the need of the hour.

I also hope that as citizens, we realise the importance of the Constitution.

We have a replica of it at the museum, and depending on the religion of our visitors, they assume it’s the Bible or the Quran, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or some religious text. They have no conception that we are actually bound by another very important book called the Constitution of India. There isn’t any other piece of writing that has the kind of vision that the Constitution holds.

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