Bihar Blues: The Story of the Famous Museum in Patna

Living outside Bihar for many years and returning here time and again makes me see it from a distance – whether I am travelling through its hinterlands, reading Phanishwar Nath Renu, well-known Hindi writer who lived in a village close to mine, or hearing news that pities the condition of the state.

This relationship is somewhat akin to what Annaya experiences in A. K. Ramanujan’s short story Annaya’s Anthropology. Like the metaphor of the library that opens up a complicated history of death and self-discovery for Annaya, I believe museums too are about this predicament. Words lead up to an architectural form, intersecting pathways, and bring across a certain veneer on the surface: an image framed by light, colour and history.

Consider the Bihar Museum: a gigantic building laterally spread across four-and-a-half acres, with an earthy red and grey texture, surrounded by greenery and standing humble and confident amidst its surroundings. It looks organic to the eye.

Maki and Associates, the Japanese firm who designed the building, consider it as a group chain structure where the administration, exhibition and other spaces are connected to each other through open courtyards. For them, it does not only do away with the stuffiness of history and museums, but also lend it a more open and natural possibility.

Cloister, Bihar Museum. Image credit: Maki and Associates

The museum, however, also bears a pedagogic structure.

As you enter, there is a reception desk to your left and next to it is the restaurant Potbelly – famous for its Bihari dishes. To your right is the Children’s Gallery. It takes you through how archaeological discoveries are made, about the flora and fauna of Bihar and kingdoms that ruled the ancient territory we call Bihar. While historical events occupy a prominent place in this part of the museum, there is also an attempt to create interactive vignettes of the present and the past.

A model of the crown of Ashoka occupies the centre of attraction. This is a famous selfie point where the young and the old get themselves photographed. Nearby, there are mirrors where you can look at yourself in different Mauryan head-gears. In another section, there is a modern map of Bihar with names of places, people, monuments and icons imprinted on it.

Also read: Majnu Ka Tila: Delhi’s Own ‘Mini Tibet’

These curatorial placements give visitors a possibility to imagine their place in the larger scheme of history. The act of image-making embodied in the museum, however, is never an oblivious act.

As Susan Sontag writes in her book On Photography:

“A photograph is not merely an experience captured in a frame, but also an evidence of that experience.”

The need to furnish image as evidence to stake their claim in history is perhaps what characterises Bihar, Bihar Museum, and many visitors who visit the museum at this juncture.

Now consider the other side of the museum, the left from the centre: galleries here take a formal turn. History is marked off into huge time spans – an object becomes an index of a period and culture. The story however remains elusive; labels and text panels suggest nothing much about where these artefacts were found and how they came to the museum.

One may notice colossal Buddha sculptures with damaged parts. But Bihar Museum says nothing about the conflicting history of excavation and colonial classifications that still inform the way we understand history.

This amnesia is ironic as the new state-of-the-art museum has come into being by literally demolishing six colonial-heritage bungalows that stood in its place.

The museum also takes pride in announcing to its visitors that the history of Bihar is at large the history of India. Scholars of Bihar, however, question this assumption. Saibal Gupta and late Papiya Ghosh in their scholarship have shown that the Bihari history in its present form suffers from a weak sense of sub-nationalism. National consciousness and caste are more prominent, and therefore the possibility of the emergence of Bihari identity remains dim. In this scenario, instead of strengthening its regional identity, Bihar Museum’s attempt to boldly trace Bihari History as India’s history appears misplaced.

Crown of Ashoka at Children Gallery. Image credit: Akash Bhardwaj.

This national narrative becomes more apparent as one goes past the historical gallery and approaches regional and contemporary art section.

In the section on regional art – which in some sense is an attempt to capture the essence of contemporary art traditions from Bihar – one wonders why it remains distinct from the contemporary art gallery even though the art works in both galleries belong to the same time frame.

This taxonomic distinction and the distance between them seems like they are not mere distinctions but are rooted in a notion of hierarchy.

While the regional gallery privileges the idea of space and tries to locate arts of Bihar, the contemporary gallery hinges on time, and comprises of contemporary Indian art. In this journey from regional to national, shouldn’t one then ask if Bihar will have to become India first to be contemporary in art?

In addition, while most paintings in the regional section want to assert themselves with their huge scale, the lack of space in the gallery inhibits one from experiencing the aura of these works.

The aura instead is enhanced in the historical art gallery, at the centre of which stands the famous Didarganj Yakshi. Made of polished Chunar sandstone, the sculpture remains an enigma for both scholars and visitors. It was found near the banks of river Ganga in Didarganj, Patna in 1917. Since then she has traveled a long journey from being a figure of goddess to becoming an object of historical value and a national icon. Now, It stands as a life-size sculpture in Bihar Museum.

More than a historical artefact, one is expected to see it as art. Yet this art means different things in different contexts. A few years ago, a Times of India article reported how Didarganj Yakshi, earlier kept in a dark room in Patna Museum, had to face the voyeuristic gaze from many visitors.

Didarganj Yakshi at historical art gallery. Image credit: Maki and Associates

The life history of objects such as these also reveal the different ways by which museums intermingle with our social life. For a state like Bihar to have an international art museum is a bold move. But we must also subject it to our own scrutiny and desire for a Bihari identity.

It cannot be simply tagged as an assertion of identity and culture devoid of a context. Collections, display and design should make that appear; it should produce a critical history of the past.

In the inner courtyard of the museum, which remains out of reach for common visitors, there stands a huge installation – Yantra by Subodh Gupta, the popular artist from Bihar. Made of familiar household objects, in his classic steel fashion, the installation reveals the inner workings of everyday life. Like his earlier works, this, too, is a reflection on memory: his formative years spent in Patna and rituals he saw during his childhood have had a lasting influence on his art.

The day I visited the museum, I saw people peeking at the installation through the glass door. It stood tall under the open sky, like an object of wonder. Inside, workers –  teamed up in their blue uniforms – were busy cleaning the floor.

This outside/inside distinction between art and curatorial work that sustains it has perhaps remained a defining feature of modern museums. Bihar Museum in Patna is no exception. The point is what we make out of it.

Akash Bharadwaj is a PhD researcher with the department of History at Shiv Nadar University

All images provided by the author

Note: Subodh Gupta has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct. In return, the artist has filed a defamation suit against one of the survivors. and the case is sub-judice in the Delhi High Court. This article, in no way, intends to endorse or exalt the figure of the artist.