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A visit to the Museum of Conflict

The Conflictorium allows you to examine the place inside yourself where violence lives. How appropriate that this museum should be in Ahmedabad.

 |  4-minute read |   03-10-2014
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Having arbitrarily decided that places that show works of 20th century art were not museums, I spent most of my younger days claiming that I hated museums.

The ones crammed with antiquities or garbled exotica, the ones displaying dinosaur skeletons or tableaux of the life lived by pygmies, the idiosyncratic collections of personal memorabilia that become the temples of hero-worship.

Later, as I grew more sophisticated in the arguments for my prejudice, I denounced the traditional museum as an extension of the colonial enterprise, a material manifestation of the philosophies of "orientalism" that sought to depersonalise and dehumanise the colonial subject.

People and things from faraway lands were presented as objects, worthy of curiosity and study, but not of respect. Like so many other pegs upon which I hung my younger hats, this peg too, was destined to come unstuck.

I fell in love with traditional museums first at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and then again at the Government Museum in Mathura.

Both are bursting at the seams with archaeological materials, primarily statuary. Both have so much that they couldn't be bothered to list or label or display anything properly.

In one, I was awestruck by the vainglorious extravagance of Tutankahamen's treasures. In the other, I was brought to tears by the ascetic Buddha's ravaged body.

Just the other day, an archaeologist friend allowed me to handle etched carnelian beads and caress clay toys from thousands of years ago, to grip stone implements from the Palaeolithic Age. It was an unutterably moving experience, one for which I feel privileged and grateful. 

And so it was, with a real sense of the materiality of our past that I set forth to visit what I thought would be an exercise in abstraction, the "Conflictorium" aka "The Museum of Conflict" in Ahmedabad, an interactive space that demands an immediate response to the exhibits and installations from the visitor.

Propelled by the idealistic and hopeful aesthetics of young designer-activists from National Institute of Design and Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, the Conflictorium "seeks to act as a third space to create a dialogue through art".

While I am not sure that aspiration is fulfilled at the moment, they do succeed in offering the critical reminder that conflict is not only about communal riots, that it arises, most fundamentally, when people are prevented from fulfilling themselves.

There are lovely moments scattered throughout the cramped spaces of this old house. Some remind us, through realia, of the conflicts closest to us in time and space, others embody abstract ideas. You hear the voices of Jinnah and Gandhi and Ambedkar, each describing a bright future that contradicts the vision held by the others.

In a room called the Moral Compass, whose centrepiece is a (digital) copy of the Indian Constitution, the current display hangs banners that list the Acts and Bills which provide legal protection for women against the many atrocities that they face, ranging from dowry to foetal sex determination. The idea of our Constitution as the resolute magnetic north of our promises is, simply put, profound.

At various stages of your visit, you are asked to contribute something to an installation: a tag about what makes you angry here, a coloured bangle about your emotional state there. In a balcony, an overhanging bougainvillea becomes the "sorry tree," personal notes of contrition added by visitors becoming the tree's secondary but equally brave and vibrant blossoms.

The best thing about the Conflictorium is that, unlike a Holocaust or an Apartheid museum might, it does not make you a voyeur of violence. It persuades you to acknowledge that violence takes many forms - the violence of crushing a dream, the violence of killing an idea, the violence of stilling an opposing voice.

It asks you to examine the place inside yourself where violence lives, be it in the form of an unspoken apology or in the support of an ideology of inequality.

How appropriate that this space should be in Ahmedabad. How important that the Conflictorium be visited by us all.

Writer

Arshia Sattar Arshia Sattar

The writer works with the story traditions of the sub-continent and is particularly interested in the Ramayana.

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