On a recent trip to Patna to attend a conference, I stopped by the Patna Museum to see the Didarganj Yakshi. The Yakshi stood at the entrance of the sculpture gallery, her usual smiling self, elegantly carrying her voluptuous, polished body, despite her broken arm and chipped nose. Who would say she is almost 2,500 years old! She was discovered by chance, on the banks of the Ganga near Patna, where a dhobi used her back as a slab to wash clothes. The museum acquired her in 1917 and she became one of the most prized possessions, a symbol of Bihar’s aesthetic proficiency. Subsequently, she travelled across continents as an ambassador of ancient India’s art. After having been relocated several times, the Yakshi is due to have another new home, in the newly constructed Bihar Museum in Patna.
Is the imminent shifting of the Patna Museum’s collection to the swanky new Bihar Museum responsible for the exceedingly dismal state of affairs at the Patna Museum? The Patna Museum, like several other museums in Bihar, does not even have a curator at present. The galleries do not seem to have been dusted or swept and the Yakshi and her colleagues are waiting to soon be crated and shipped to a new building. Why is it that a state with a high unemployment rate cannot find or employ a workforce to take care of this monumental building and its rich collection of sculptures, bronzes, terracotta, fossils, coins, armour, tal patra manuscripts, miniature paintings, water colours by the Daniells’ and much more?
It has also been a hundred years since the Patna Museum was established, for which it has just received funds for centenary celebrations from the Bihar government. When I visited the museum, the meagre staff was choosing designs for bags to be given out during the centenary celebrations over endless cups of tea.
The museum was established in 1917, as the first museum in the newly made province of Bihar and Orissa. Before the formation of the new province, all the excavated remains from the sites in Bihar and Orissa were taken to the Indian Museum in Kolkata. The political circumstances behind the establishment of the new province and its partitioning from Bengal incited a great desire to assert a provincial identity, to create a history for the region and to project its artistic and cultural heritage. It was against this backdrop of provincial reconfiguration that Sachinand Sinha moved a resolution to build a provincial museum and library at the first meeting of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society, held on January 20, 1915. The meeting, held under the presidency of lieutenant governor Sir Charles S. Bayley, appointed a committee to work out a scheme for the establishment of a provincial museum at Patna. The museum was meant to begin as an archaeological and ethnographic museum with the scope of adding an economic section later. The society worked in tandem with the museum to research, gather and preserve.
The collected antiquities were initially stored in the commissioner’s bungalow till they became too large to be kept there. In 1917, the collection was shifted to a few rooms in the north wing of the Patna high court building where Sir Edward Gait the lieutenant governor of Bihar and Orissa, formally established the Patna Museum with distinguished ethnologist and anthropologist Rai Bahadur Sarat Chandra Roy as the first curator. In 1925, the land for the museum was allocated and a two-storey building designed by Rai Bahadur Bishnu Swarup was completed in 1928. In early March 1929, the government formally handed over the building to the managing committee, and the then governor of Bihar and Orissa, Sir Hugh Lansdowne Stephenson, inaugurated the museum. In keeping with the rhetoric behind its establishment, it was decided that the building should be designed in the native style. The Patna Museum building, as it now stands is one of the best specimens of Indo-Sarcenic style of architecture – chattri over the centre, domes in the four corners and jharoka style windows.
There are two central narratives around which the collections of the Patna Museum were initially organised, first to highlight the glories of the land of Buddhism and to trace the journey of the historic Buddha by the acquisition of relics from various sites associated with his life. The second theme was based on the personality of Asoka, projected as the first ‘Monarch of India’, the great ambassador of Buddhism. The museum sought to capture the grandeur of the fabled Mauryan capital Pataliputra, which was recognised as modern day Patna. The establishment of the Patna Museum went hand in hand with the exploration and subsequently excavation of Mauryan sites at Kumrahar, Bulandibagh and several others all within the city limits of modern day Patna.
Today the museum has about 45,000 objects displayed in its 12 galleries – including a relic casket believed to contain the Buddha’s ashes and a 53 feet long tree fossil. The museum has a very large reserve collection and space crunch is definitely one of the issues it faces.
The museum campus is now known for its lush lawns which are dotted with historical artefacts, the library of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society and the KP Jayaswal Research Institute. In 2012 the Satabdi Smarak was unveiled, an artists’ rendition of the coming together of historic sites from Bihar such as Vaishali, Golghar, the Nalanda monastery, Barabar caves etc. In recent years, several literary festivals have been hosted in the museum lawns, giving a new lease of life to the space and an opportunity of cultural conglomeration.
The museum is also known as the Jadu Ghar because not only is it a cabinet of curiosities, the museum is also an important cultural institution and a significant landmark in the city’s landscape. Many other historic landmarks are located in its vicinity, such as the Patna Kotwali, Lady Stephenson Hall, Sinha Library and Golghar, to name a few. In a city which is has lost a generation of citizens due to social and political crises in the 1980s and the 1990s, with sprawling urbanisation leading to the demolition of historic buildings, the Patna Museum has withstood the test of time.
A government which has a budget of Rs 498 crores to build a new museum and employ Japanese architects and Canadian consultants for it must have enough money at its disposal to allocate a certain amount for the revival and maintenance of the historic Patna Museum. It is time to revive the magic of this Jadu Ghar by employing modern curatorial practices to change the museum’s narrative, display and catalogues. In recent years, other colonial museums have been restored and received a new lease of life, such as the Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai and Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City museum.
The Patna Museum represents a significant moment in the making of Bihar’s heritage and it is time to cherish and protect this century old heritage building. The museum still has substantial footfall, which can grow with the organisation of more cultural evenings, children’s educational programmes and museum tours. Students of the Patna Arts College can be invited to make the museum space more contemporary by having periodic art installations. The Patna Museum should be promoted as a significant stop on the tourist map, linked with the historical narrative of the city and tied up with other cultural landmarks.
If the Bihar Museum is necessary to exhibit the intellectual prowess of the state and its cultural identity, the revival of the Patna Museum is even more important to reinforce the historic and regional identities around which the state was first carved. If spatial constraints have been the reason behind the construction of a new museum, the Patna Museum has enough artefacts to be distributed between the two museums. While the Bihar Museum can display the cultural and ethnological history of the state of Bihar, the Patna Museum can continue to be the historic museum as was originally intended. The two museums can have a common ticket and interlinked through curatorial narratives.
To reiterate the original motto of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society which summarised the aim of establishing the Patna Museum: “With our well-lit and restful galleries, the student and scholar should find ample material for instruction and further investigation.”
Salila Kulshreshtha has a PhD in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is currently working on a monograph on shrines and sacred icons from Bihar.