As visitors enter the room, they are greeted by an innocuous floor tile that asks: “Are you religious?” Two arrows branch off — one for ‘Yes’ and the other for ‘No’. Thus begins a flowchart that leads to one soul-searching question after another. The questions become increasingly intense, forcing visitors to ponder deeply before answering.
“Does humanity pose a threat to religion?”
“For the sake of your religion, can you kill an animal or a human?”
This entire room is an installation in Raipur’s Conflictorium, “a participatory museum that brings together different people to celebrate plurality and encourage transformative dialogue via art and culture practices”. The installation is part of a short-term exhibit that started on November 6 and will continue for the next couple of months.
The exhibit is an enquiry into the freedom of religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution and includes a set of paintings and a video as the other installations. While developments like the hijab controversy define the exhibit’s contemporary relevance, it resonates in the very concept of the museum, Ayush Chandrawanshi, project anchor and curator of the museum, said.
“While the idea of conflict conventionally refers to overt violence, Conflictorium believes in deconstructing those acts to the smaller and seemingly simpler cracks in people’s perceptions of belonging, empathy and community. It acknowledges and explores the phenomenon of conflict transformation as a key move in imagining a peaceful society,” said Mr. Chandrawanshi, an alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.
A collaborative project of the non-profit Janvikas, Centre for Social Justice, and Navsarjan, the Conflictorium is the second of its kind museum anywhere in the country. There has been one in Ahmedabad for a decade, while the one in Raipur was inaugurated in April this year. The broad theme remains similar but the curators have tried to localise the Raipur Conflictorium, through exhibits depicting the various conflicts in the State with experiential exhibits that are permanent, semi-permanent, or short-term, such as ‘Markers and Morality’.
Extraction of minerals, for example, often leads to conflict in forest-rich areas of Chhattisgarh, where tribals oppose the deforestation and displacement that comes with it. One of the exhibits, for example, requires visitors to wear a miner’s helmet and walk on a bed of coals through a dark, unventilated passage that creates the experience of a coal mine.
Conflict does assume a more violent form in these mineral rich areas, with locals often finding themselves caught between Left Wing Extremists in areas such as Bastar, and the security forces camping in jungles to fight them.
The death, in a police firing, of four tribals protesting against a security camp in Silger last May, triggered an even bigger protest. To this day, it lingers on, notwithstanding the State’s claims that the deceased were Maoists. More recently, a court in Chhattisgarh acquitted 121 tribals in a case of Maoist ambush after they had spent five years in jail. On the other hand are killings by ultras, with reports of villagers being killed for being suspected police informers often making it to local dailies in the conflict zone of Bastar.
Witness Box, another permanent exhibit, captures some of these dimensions. Hanging headsets make the visitor feel like a witness in the middle of such discussions — such as a TV cameraman injured in a Maoist ambush making his last phone call, and an interview with someone who was falsely incarcerated for four years after being accused of being a police informer.
The “Gallery of Dispute” explores themes such as man-animal conflict, or communal tensions, boundaries of caste and religion, via an interactive experience where the participant feels she is a part of the overall experience, diving into the backdrop of these conflicts.
“This is one of the reasons why Raipur was chosen for setting up another Conflictorium because the conflicts are not restricted to the ones that have a military nature. So when the founders were looking for a second or third tier city, this is what drove them to zero in on Raipur. Also, it was felt that it was the perfect place to ignite a culture of social thought process, compared to the metros, or even other contenders like Imphal. The recent anti-mining protests in Hasdeo also gave it a contemporary context,” Mr. Chandravanshi said.
While pursuing his Masters in Photography Design from NID, the Raipur resident came in touch with the project’s founder-director Avni Sethi. The groundwork for the Raipur museum began in 2020, only to be slowed down by the two waves of the pandemic. Mr. Chandravanshi came on board in 2021, and worked on location hunting and on curating the exhibits, which include works by renowned poets, photographers and artists. He now manages the Conflictorium, spread across three floors, with a team of four.