Bihar seeks to reclaim historic legacy with ambitious museum in Patna
An ambitious new museum set up by the state government seeks to reclaim Bihar’s historic legacy as an international centre of culture.
October 12, 2017 | UPDATED 16:33 IST
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The Bihar museum. Photograph by Yasir Iqbal
Art requires a story, says Anjani Kumar Singh, chief secretary of Bihar. Taking the example of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, housed at the Louvre in Paris, he says the painting is seen by six million people every year. It is famous for many reasons, not least its age-it is about 500 years old-but on that count, the Didarganj Yakshi, a 5 foot 2 inch tall sandstone statue, is even more impressive. Estimated to be more than 2,300 years old, it was found on the banks of the Ganges about a century ago. Today, it is one of the prize exhibits at Patna’s newly built Bihar Museum, a Rs 500 crore state government enterprise that opened its doors to the public on October 2. “The Didarganj Yakshi is the Mona Lisa of Bihar,” Kumar continues, talking up the leap of faith the state took in setting up this museum-the brainchild of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, which chief secretary Kumar was responsible for executing. “We must sell our stories and promote our heritage and culture.”
“Imagine the artist’s vision-to have carved it out of a single piece of sandstone,” says JPN Singh, additional director, Bihar Museum. This vision was applauded on Gandhi Jayanti, when 25 of India’s top artists-among them Himmat Shah, Subodh Gupta, Jatin Das and Arpana Caur-assembled for the opening. The museum is still a work in progress, with a restaurant featuring Bihari dishes still in the pipeline. So far, the Bodhi tree logo carved in wood at the entrance has already emerged as a favourite selfie spot among visitors. “Imagine a village woman coming and looking at contemporary art,” says Subodh Gupta. His installation, a Rangoli made in trademark style, using familiar household domestic items like a fridge, a sewing machine, a washing machine and utensils, will soon be part of the new museum. “Other states and the government of India must learn from Bihar,” he continues.
In 2010, CM Nitish had visited the erstwhile Patna Museum, the third oldest in the country. He was told that the showcased exhibits weren’t even 20 per cent of the total collection. In fact, according to officials, even the artefacts that were on display were in no particular order and were missing background information. This included thousands of prehistoric artefacts from different parts of Bihar. The state is rich in history, being the place where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment and where the emperor Ashoka renounced war. Its legacy includes Nalanda, which, until the 12th century, was a world class university and monastery. Today, it is being revived as a centre for education. “We have to reclaim our lost legacy,” says Kumar. “We were once the capital of the Mauryan empire. We were a seat of power and culture.”
A terracotta installation, inspired by the folklore of Sama-Chakeba, by Rajat Ghosh
After his visit, the chief minister decided on the construction of a state-of-the-art museum at Bailey Road, Patna – to be called the Bihar Museum – bringing together an international jury to select a design. In 2011, Maki and Associates, a Japanese architectural firm, was selected to design it. The state government then approved the selection in January the following year and in July 2013, the chief minister laid the foundation stone of the new museum.
Having visited many museums across the world, Kumar says that such buildings should have a connect with the society they serve. “We did not want to copy anyone,” he says. “The Japanese design for the Bihar Museum was simple and functional-ground floor plus one. Corten steel, or weathering steel (an alloy that does away with the need for paint by having a ‘stable’ coat of rust), was used for the walls. People think the steel is rusted, but [the appearance] is by design.” The architects went with a ‘campus layout’, with an entrance pavilion, exhibition galleries and an administrative building. Canada-based Lord Cultural Resources, the world’s oldest cultural planning consultancy, with more than 1,800 museum and cultural planning assignments under its belt, was also roped in. This agency was instrumental in choosing which artefacts would be displayed, including several brought from the old Patna Museum (which, after renovation, will house artefacts from 1764 AD onward).
Constructed on 5.3 hectares, the Bihar Museum has 24,000 square metres of built-up area. The design showcases unusual materials, like the corten steel used for exterior cladding. With five sections-multiple historical galleries, a section for contemporary art and temporary exhibitions, another for regional art, including tributes to the culture of Mithila, Bhojpur, Magahi and Angika, a diaspora gallery that focuses on the migrations of indentured labourers and their subsequent relocations and a children’s gallery-the new museum is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the state.
Showcased artefacts range from Bodhisattva statues and sculptures in the Gandhara style to an ‘artefacts chest’ containing relics of the Buddha, discovered in Vaishali in 1959. Another museum is coming up at Vaishali itself, for which 73 acres of land have already been acquired. A Delhi-based architectural firm has been roped in for design and it is expected to house the relics of the Buddha. It will cost the state exchequer more than Rs 300 crore. “Every year, 200,000-300,000 tourists visit Bodh Gaya. A museum in Vaishali with the Buddha’s [relics] will be yet another tourist attraction,” says additional museum director Singh. “It will also have a meditation centre and artefacts related to Buddhism.”
A poor state can dream big, he says. In May 2012, the state cabinet had approved an outlay of Rs 400 crore for the Bihar Museum, of which construction was estimated to cost Rs 298.5 crore. The final project cost was about Rs 498.5 crore. However, given the demands for Bihar to be granted ‘special status’, many feel such museums are an unjustified expense. At least three public interest litigations (PILs) have been filed at the Patna High Court questioning such expenditure. In 2015, the court directed the state government to submit an affidavit in this regard, based on a PIL filed by a scholar named Ashok Kumar, questioning the use of public funds for the construction of new museums.
But then, Kumar insists, it is important to reclaim the past. “Since Independence, no museum has been made like [the Bihar Museum]. The glass has come from Scotland and Germany, the fabricator from Singapore. While it is a historical museum, the other sections are very important. We can develop Bihar as an art and culture hub,” he says.
In the regional art gallery at the Bihar Museum, 17 artworks celebrate the culture of the state. A school of fish-an auspicious symbol in the state – made by Jamui-based craftsperson Pranmohan Sah – hangs off wires from the ceiling and seems to be floating in space. In a corner, Dulari Devi, 51, stands with her sari pallu drawn over her face. Hailing from Ranti, a small hamlet in Madhubani, she was awarded the Bihar State Award for Excellence in Art for 2012-13-a painting of hers, commissioned by the museum, now hangs along with others celebrating the varied craft of her region. “This canvas took me a year to finish. I have painted the scenes of our traditional Kamala Puja,” she says. Born in a community of fisher folk, she used to work at the home of famous Mithila painter Mahasundari Devi. Dulari began assisting Mahasundari by filling in colours and in time developed her own style. “I wondered if one day I could sell my own paintings and earn money,” she says. (Gupta calls her work “a masterpiece”.) The room also has a depiction of Aadi Shakti in papier mache by Sharad Kumar, who learned the significance of the primeval deity from the stories his grandmother told him. There is also a pair of terracotta installations inspired by the folklore of Sama-Chakeba, the daughter and son of Lord Krishna. One shows the story in which the daughter was turned into a bird and later brought back to human form by her brother, while the other depicts a parallel version of the same myth in which Sama and Chakeba are lovers.
Then there is Rajat Ghosh, who won a National Award for his sculptures and terracotta work in 1984. He has remained in Patna most of his life. In 2012, alongside Gupta-who made a 26-foot-tall cactus with steel utensils-Ghosh made a nine-tonne iron and steel sculpture of Raja Shailesh, the king of the Dusadh community in Mithila for the Bihar Divas celebrations. A 1978 alumnus of Patna College of Arts and Crafts, Ghosh says the museum is a beacon of light for artists in Bihar. “It is a leap of faith for us,” he says.
And for Bihar as well.