Bihar model beckons

Print edition : January 05, 2018

The museum has been built as an art and exhibition space designed to house art and archaeological objects and host contemporary art exhibitions. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Didarganj Yakshi (3rd century BCE). This Mauryan sandstone sculpture is widely regarded as one of the finest artefacts of ancient Indian art and is currently housed in Bihar Museum. Photo: By Special Arrangement

At the Children’s Gallery, which was opened in 2015. Photo: Goutam Dey

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Chief Secretary and Nodal Officer of the Museum project Anjani Kumar Singh with the artists Bose Krishnamachari (centre) and Subodh Gupta (right). Photo: By Special Arrangement

Bihar Museum, a significant initiative by the State government, has the potential to inspire similar projects across the country. But its success hinges on the extent of functional autonomy it enjoys, financial support and visionary leadership.

On October 2, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar inaugurated the main galleries of the new Bihar Museum in Patna. Designed by Fumihiko Maki, one of the most celebrated architects in the world, and spread across 24,000 square metres on a sprawling campus of 5.3 hectares, Bihar Museum is the largest and the most contemporary museum in the country, showcasing some of its most ancient and celebrated archaeological, historical and aesthetic artefacts. A part of the museum featuring the children’s section, with recreational and interactive exhibits on history, wildlife and archaeology, had been opened in 2015. The other major galleries displaying artefacts from history, folk and contemporary art and the gallery titled “Girmitiya”(descendants of indentured Indian labourers) on the Bihari diaspora, are now open to the public. Work relating to display mounts and pedestals, lighting arrangements, descriptions and signage is still under way and is expected to be completed in a few months.

During the inaugural ceremony, Nitish Kumar reiterated his commitment to the original vision of the museum and justified its expenditure as a long-term cultural investment that Bihar owes its long and glorious history. Chief Secretary Anjani Kumar Singh, the Nodal Officer of the museum project, and his team completed the project on time, without deviating from its original plan.

The museum brochure promises the visitor a “journey to the land where the Great Buddha attained enlightenment, where the mighty King Asoka renunciated the practice of conquest through war to embrace Dhammavijay—conquest through moral principle (and) established the world’s first welfare state.... Since time immemorial, Bihar has been the epicentre of some of the greatest thought leaders, the most powerful empires and the most renowned shrines of knowledge and peace... (and) produced a historic legacy that affected most of the Indian subcontinent, and continues to inspire present and future generations. A number of symbols used by the Indian state such as the four-headed lion capital, which is now India’s national emblem; the Dharmachakra, used in the national flag and many other symbols have all come from Bihar. Apart from the great tangible artefacts, objects and symbols, Bihar has produced some of the greatest universal concepts through Buddhism and Jainism”.

Patna already houses the illustrious Patna Museum, established in 1917, the third oldest museum in the country after those in Calcutta and Madras. It has one of the largest collections of archaeological material and artefacts, including the world-renowned sculpture of the Didarganj Yakshi, and Buddhist and Jain art and the private collection of the eminent travel writer Rahul Sankrityayan.The two museums will function complementarily in terms of the historical periods they cover. While Bihar Museum will cover the prehistoric and ancient period, the establishment of the first cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the Vedic period and Empire building through the late medieval and Mughal periods up to the 18th century, the period after that will form the content of the Patna Museum.

Bihar Museum is a significant step by a State government because there have been very few institutional initiatives on such a scale after the initial wave during the post-Independence decades when “national” institutions for art were set up. Paradoxically, the art scene has seen a resurgence in all regions in the past few decades; apart from new art events and institutions, several artists from all over the country have made a mark on the global art scene. This has created a huge demand for art exhibitions, shows, museums and galleries, which is, at present, catered to mainly by private players. Without significant public interventions such as Bihar Museum in all States, art and culture may soon be dominated by corporates.

Museum architecture

While most other museums in the country are “heritage” structures that have been converted, Bihar Museum has been conceived and built as an art and exhibition space designed to house art and archaeological objects and host contemporary art events and shows.

Architecturally, Bihar Museum fits easily into the urban layout of old Patna city with its wide avenues emanating from the administrative centre of the capital. The museum jells with the horizontal sweep of the cityscape, for the emphasis in its aesthetics of space is not on the vertical. Its frontage is flat and inclining inwards in a manner that yields to and jells with the surrounding urban ecology, offering visitors an inviting ambience. The “rustic” charm of the iron panels that line its exterior add to its majesty and unintimidating openness, while the rough, weathered surface vibes with the archaeological accent of the museum.

Inside, the galleries are spread over a large area and connected in an organic continuum. The interiors are cool and austere; the high ceilings, long corridors and window panels running parallel to it provide visitors with a view of the gardens with its waterfalls and sculptures. There are also interstitial spaces that can house installations, temporary or permanent. The lighting and space arrangements are in tune with the display and the narrative of the exhibits.

Museum of intentions

Significantly, the inauguration of Bihar Museum was accompanied by an artists’ workshop involving eminent artists from all over the country, to commemorate the centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha. One of the earliest struggles led by Mahatma Gandhi, the Champaran Satyagraha is a remarkable episode in modern Indian history that, according to Irfan Habib, opened “a new phase in the national movement by joining it to the great struggle of the Indian peasantry for bread and land”. The economic and political import of Gandhi’s intervention, which drew upon indigenous political energies for an ethical struggle against both colonial rule and global capital, is all the more relevant today.

Artists who participated in the workshop included Jogen Chowdhury, Jatin Das, K.S. Radhakrishnan, Riyas Komu and Jyoti Bhatt. It was a welcome move, considering its political and aesthetic intent, and also in connecting contemporary artists with the museum and making their works part of its contemporary gallery. According to Nitish Kumar, the two areas that museums should focus on are history and science, which he believes will nurture an understanding about history and inculcate a scientific temper among students and youth. The Bihar government has already introduced a scheme in this direction by giving financial support to schools to organise study tours in which museums like Bihar Museum will be on the itinerary. “In five years, almost all students in the State would have visited Bihar Museum at least once. It will make a lot of difference in their outlook and attitudes, providing them a comprehensive learning experience.” Such an initiative assures the new museum a constant flow of visitors. Likewise, artists in the State, too, will look to the museum to synergise the art scene and create dynamic linkages with the outside world. That is where the content of the museum, its functional dynamism and open approach will be decisive.

Apprehensions and hopes

Himmat Shah, one of the most respected artists in the country, is all praise for Bihar Museum but is sceptical about its future: “[It] is the biggest one in the country and has been executed in an organised manner. But now the challenge lies in getting trained people to run it. Go to any good museum in the world, London or Tate, you will be greatly impressed by the way they maintain and develop it constantly, by welcoming new ideas and developing innovative programmes. That’s why people keep going there…. So, a good museum means a good collection of art, vibrant connect with artists, art students and scholars, and trained hands to manage it…. In a country where even the available art resources are not understood or utilised properly, the challenges are all the more huge.”

Jogen Chowdhury, artist and Member of Parliament, aired similar concerns: “As I am involved in a similar museum project in Kolkata, I know how challenging it is to realise a project like this in the government sector. Odisha, too, is working on a museum project. I think Bihar Museum will be a model and inspiration for all such initiatives in the public sector.

“Art should not be left to private collectors and galleries. Governments usually think of cultural investments as ‘expenditure’ and as uneconomical. Actually it is not so. Look at China and how they are investing in culture in a big way; for instance, they are building around 500 new museums. They know it will help their economy in the long run by spurring tourism and increasing tax revenue and so on. Museums should not be seen as something for the elite. Art is for humanity, it is for the positive growth of humanity as a whole.”

According to Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum Art Conservation Centre, Mumbai, “For the first time after Independence, I see a modern museum architecture here… you feel like you are in a European museum. Now that the structure is in place, the challenges are about maintenance and development. In India, we don’t have enough people trained and experienced in museum management and curation. They have space for ancient and contemporary art, space for permanent and temporary exhibition: so, the challenge is how to use them effectively and creatively. To run a museum of this scale, you will need a minimum of 600 people for security, housekeeping, administration and as technical staff, art handlers, curatorial staff, for education, restoration, research and publication, etc. First of all, the museum needs good leadership and an institutional vision statement as to how they conceive of their role and activities. Unless you build a good image about your institution, people are not going to come around…. It is all about creating a contemporary and secular image involving different communities and collaborating with other art institutions and educational initiatives. Such a secular space presupposes autonomy and freedom in its management. I eagerly look forward to this museum coming up as a major cultural institution in the country.”

As Jyoti Bhatt, senior artist and academic, says, “True, this building itself is a work of art… it is a sort of sculpture which can be enjoyed from outside; but it is also meant to be a functional building as it is built for a particular purpose. So, the question is how far it will succeed in doing so. Most of the decisions in this country are made by politicians, whose priorities keep changing. So, there is the question of whether it will be consistently supported by changing governments. Another issue is that governments spend money only to create infrastructure, but do not provide enough funds for continued financial support to run and develop the museum.”

The compliments, pleas and notes of caution sounded by the artists, scholars and museum leaders all share a great sense of hope and scepticism. With enough functional autonomy, financial support from the State and a vibrant and visionary leadership, Bihar Museum has the potential to become a model for the country. For this it has to collaborate and partner creatively with artists, programmers, scholars, historians, museums and galleries in India and abroad, and trigger institutional synergies that will live up to its ideals. One hopes it will live up to the majesty of its architecture and the wealth of its content.