History

Curation at the Cost of History: A Tale of Two Bihar Museums

The two Bihar museums, Broadley’s museum in Bihar Sharif and the present one in Patna, came about in vastly different times and circumstances. But what binds the two museums is how they acquired their core collections.

“Bridge to the past; Gateway to the future” is the watchword of the newly opened Bihar Museum at Patna.  This has been conceived to celebrate Bihar’s ancient past and inculcate a sense of pride in modern day “Biharis.” Yet the irony of the situation is that the point of conception of this modern museum is also one of dissolution of a chapter of Bihar’s heritage. After all, the core collection of the new museum has been built by appropriating the most prized artefacts of the historic Patna Museum, such as the Didarganj yakshini, Kurkihar bronzes and 18th century Daniell prints.

The combined province of Bihar and Orissa was carved out from the Bengal Presidency in 1912 with its capital at Patna. The Patna Museum was soon established in 1917 to preserve antiquities found in the state, in their natural surroundings, as also to present a visual history of the region and project its artistic and cultural heritage. Prior to its establishment, all archaeological artefacts found in Bihar were carted off to the Indian Museum, Calcutta. With the establishment of the Patna Museum, there was a concerted drive to recover these “exiled” objects and display them in the new museum. The founding of the Patna Museum thus marked an important moment in the politics of provincial reconfiguration, Bihari nationalism and heritage making.

The present Chief Minister of Bihar and top bureaucrats of the state, in investing Rs 500 crore in a state of the art Bihar Museum, whose collection is being built by scavenging from the core collection of the Patna Museum, probably do not realise the heritage value of the latter.Neither do they seem to be aware of an erstwhile museum by the same name which at a certain juncture in history had similarly attempted to formulate an “official” version of the religious, cultural and artistic heritage of Bihar.

Altering provenance

The first Bihar Museum, established in the late 19th century by A.M. Broadley in Bihar Sharif (located about 15 kilometres south of Nalanda) was not just the oldest museum in Bihar but also one of the oldest in India. Broadley was the district magistrate of Bihar Sharif in the 1860s and was one of the earliest surveyors and explorers of Bihar. Broadley, like his colonial contemporaries, was on a mission to identify Buddhist sites in the region based on the travelogues of Chinese scholars Faxian and Xuanzang and to add to the existing knowledge of the life of the historical Buddha. During the course of his amateur excavations, Broadley collected many sculptures and architectural fragments , with which he established a museum at the collector’s bungalow at Bihar Sharif.

Broadley, being the district magistrate, had the economic means and a large labour force, including prisoners, to help excavate these sites. On some days, as he himself recorded, he could dig four archaeological sites and temples in just half an hour. He gathered valuable Buddhist relics which lay buried at the core of the stupas, dismantled shrines and carried away any slabs, inscriptions, sculptures and doorways which interested him. He did not just pick up loose fragments or stray sculptures but actually broke down structures to add to his collection. With this assortment of artefacts, he established a large, open air museum at his official residence. He published his findings from archaeological sites as The Buddhistic Remains of Bihar in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1872 and later as an individual volume by the same name. He recorded the collection of at least 686 artefacts from his excavations, though he gave no details on the original find spots, “letting his desire for additions to the collection triumph more careful work.”

In the pursuit of building a museum, he moved the artefacts from their original provenance and context, thus tampering with significant archaeological evidence. The Broadley collection continued to move around over time, their excavation and collection just the first step in their displacement. In 1891, the Government of Bengal decided to transfer the contents of the Bihar Museum to the Indian museum in Calcutta, where some of these sculptures were displayed while others were stored in the museum’s reserve collection. P.C. Mukherji of the Indian Museum was entrusted with the task of removing the Broadley collection from “Behar” (meaning Bihar Sharif) to Calcutta and to assist in their arrangement and cataloguing at the Indian Museum.

Patna Museum. Credit: Wikipedia

During this transfer many objects were damaged and broken, so much that subsequently, different fragments of the same sculpture landed up in separate museums. Such is the case of a particular image of Vishnu whose one arm is now in the Patna Museum and the rest of the image is in the Indian Museum. The much larger impact of this relocation was that in the labels and original accession registers of the Indian Museum, the source of these sculptures was listed as “Bihar” indicating the erstwhile Bihar Museum and not the site where they were found, thus resulting in a permanent loss of information about the original provenance of the objects. Towards the end of the 19th century, Theodore Bloch assumed the post of First Assistant to the Superintendent of the Indian Museum and wrote the museum’s new registers. He once again recorded the origin of these 686 artefacts as Bihar, referring to Bihar Sharif, thus obliterating the original provenance and identity of these artefacts.

A large part of the Broadley collection travelled around the world with different identities, history and provenance. Once the Patna Museum was founded, a significant portion of this collection was transferred there from the Indian Museum. These sculptures are still listed in the Patna Museum catalogues as from the Broadley Collection. ’ The Indian Museum registers also show that some pieces were given to other fledgling museums in India. Objects from the erstwhile Bihar Museum are now found in museums across the world such as at Cleveland Museum of Art, the Rockefeller Collection, New York and in the Museum fur Indische Kunst, Berlin, to name a few.

The nomenclature of these artefacts is often confusing on account of Broadley’s limited knowledge of the identity, provenance and faith of many sculptures. For instance, Vishnu and Surya have often been classified as Buddha and the Buddhist goddess Tara as Buddha’s mother, Mayadevi. This confusion might also have been deliberate since Broadley had set out with the agenda of identifying the Buddhist elements of the region. Most sculptures of the Broadley collection can be dated between the 9th and the 11th centuries, but in a few sculptures, older artistic styles are also evident. Clearly Broadley visited some fairly early sites during his excavations, which takes the history of the region further back into antiquity.

Broadley and other amateur surveyors and collectors like Francis Hamilton Buchanan and Alexander Cunningham (who later became the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India) significantly altered the fate of hundreds of sculptures and antiquities from Bihar. Their haphazard excavations not only left the ruins to the ravages of  treasure seekers from neighbouring villages but destroyed crucial archaeological evidence. The sculptures clearly came from different sites and the knowledge of the original source and archaeological context of these sculptures could throw significant light on the religious history of the region and the evolution of iconography. It could also bring forward many sites in Patna and other districts in Bihar, which would shift focus from a Buddhist centric history of the region, focussing on Nalanda, Rajgir and Bodh Gaya, to other archaeological sites that may have not been identified or sufficiently explored.

History repeating itself?

The two Bihar museums, Broadley’s museum in Bihar Sharif and the present one in Patna came about in vastly different times and circumstances. The new Bihar Museum has state of the art facilities of display, cataloguing, climate control and more so, a building exclusively designed to provide museum goers with an enriching visual experience. Broadley’s Bihar Museum did not just lack a building, with artefacts displayed in the open, but it also lacked a scientific display, nomenclature and labelling, thus defying the modern day idea of museums and curatorial practices.

However, what binds the two museums together across time is how they acquired the artefacts that comprise their core collections. The making of the two museums shows how their acquisitions as well as the taxonomies of display has been to present a visual narrative of a pre-constructed version of the historic past. While Broadley was looking for Buddhist remains, he gathered what he felt were good examples of Buddhist artistic feats, all other evidence being only circumstantial. At one point he records, “I rarely found a single figure which I can confidently assert to be purely Hindu,” despite the presence of a considerable number of sculptures of Hindu divinities in his collection.

As a colonial officer, Broadley adhered to the British version of India’s past which divided Indian history into successive Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim periods. Buddhism was regarded as the original religion of India while Hinduism, as a phenomenon that came much later,  was understood as esoteric and degenerate and its icons “monstrous” and “obscene”. Within this colonial discourse, any relic that did not suit the vision of a pristine Buddhist past was discarded and treated as merely incidental.

Much like Broadley’s museum, the new Bihar Museum has been constructed by tearing down older heritage structures. The land for the new museum was acquired by demolishing at least five colonial style bungalows, which were built on Bailey Road in Patna sometime in the early 1900s. While the Lutyens bungalows in New Delhi, which were built later, have been protected by heritage laws, the bungalows in Patna which were designed by the Australian architect J.F. Munnings did not meet the same fate. This clearly reflects the current government’s understanding of what constitutes heritage and is hence worthy of being preserved.

The process of acquisition and collection of artefacts for the new Bihar Museum is also similar to the older one – the museum is selectively acquiring from the Patna Museum artefacts from before the year 1746. This selective acquisition of artefacts can present only a partial and particular version of the state’s history. In a manner similar to the colonial fashion, the brand new galleries of the Bihar Museum will once again showcase the “glory of Bihar” through a sequential arrangement of relics as Buddhist-Mauryan-Gupta-Pala-Sena-Mughal or alternatively as Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and Muslim. The history of the region has been reduced to a succession of dynasties, fragmented histories and a linear evolution of its artistic and cultural heritage.

The Didarganj Yakshini. Credit: SV/The Wire

The post-18th century history and artefacts of Bihar including those from the period of the freedom struggle have been side-lined and will be displayed in the old Patna Museum. The Didarganj yakshini, the Bihar Museum’s most coveted object stands in a newly painted gallery, but starkly isolated and devoid of any historical and temporal context. She has travelled the world as an ambassador of Indian art and yet the present government in a rather unimaginative, colonial fashion has labelled her as the “Mona Lisa of Bihar.” The Bihar Museum in its attempt to consolidate a “Bihari identity” and appeal to “Bihari diaspora” has erased the moment when the state was first carved out and the crucial role of the Patna Museum in crystallising its provincial identity.

Any discussion of the history of Bihar till date is focussed around the themes of its Buddhist past and the glories of the Mauryan empire. Several pieces from Broadley’s Bihar Museum after several centuries of relocation have again arrived at a new home at the new Bihar Museum. But the identities which Broadley attempted to establish through his Bihar Museum continue to define the paradigms within which the region and its history are still being projected. A distorted history is repeating itself.

Salila Kulshreshtha has a PhD in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the author of ‘From Temple to Museum: Colonial Collection and Uma Mahesvara Icon in Middle Ganga Valley‘ (Routledge 2018).

Join The Discussion