A little over a week since its opening, the Bihar Museum has become Patna’s new ‘feel good’ destination. Patna residents are happy they now have a world class museum in their city. And art and culture aficionados find the museum’s modern structure — with its gleaming architecture and interiors, soothing lighting, beautifully displayed artefacts and lush green laws — an oasis of calm amid the crowds and congestion of Patna.
“A visitor can really feel the history of Bihar here,” said Vishi Upadhyay, curator of the Bihar Museum. “It is not merely a gallery of exhibits.”
Different galleries at the museum showcase the state’s heritage and its contribution to world civilization — from the figures of Buddha and Mahavir, to the Nalanda University, the Bihari diaspora (known as girmitiya labourers) of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Mahatma Gandhi’s first satyagraha from Champaran. Also highlighted here, are the philosophy of Chanakya and the reign of Emperor Ashoka.
What sets the Bihar Museum apart from others in the state is in its measuring up to international standards. “It is a well-crafted museum, like institutes of global repute. It’s definitely a positive development,” says OP Jaiswal, a Patna-based historian.
Spread across 13.3 acres of land with a built up area of 2.5 lakh square feet in the heart of Patna, the Bihar Museum has been built at a cost of Rs 517 crore. The brainchild of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the new museum is being projected as an essential stop for tourists — even as it attracts local youths with its focus on interactive, educational and entertaining exhibits. While the museum was formally launched on 2 October 2017, a portion of the building has been open since 2015, before the last Bihar Assembly polls. Nitish Kumar had then inaugurated the portion that had been completed, perhaps spurred by the uncertainty of the election’s outcome. However, being voted back into power, Kumar was able to fulfill what has been one of his dream projects, and oversee its complete launch.
Only three sections of the museum — the children’s section, visible storage and orientation theatre, in addition to the main entrance area — were opened to the public in 2015. On 2 October 2017, Kumar inaugurated four galleries, including one for regional art, contemporary art, historical art and one for ‘Bihari Diaspora’ at the museum.
“In total, there are seven galleries in this museum, on the ground plus first floor. All of them are inter-connected,” said Ranbir Singh, one of the museum’s curators.
Singh told us that each of the galleries gives the visitor easy access to Bihar’s rich history. For instance, in the historical art gallery, the ‘Didarganj Yakshi’ — considered to be a unique and outstanding piece of Indian art — is a huge visitor attraction. The Yakshi was probably made 2,000-2,300 years ago, possibly during Emperor Ashoka’s reign. It is carved out of single piece of bluff-coloured sand stone. This highly polished life-size sculpture was discovered by Maulvi Ghulam Rasul at Didarganj near Patna in 1917, exactly 100 years ago.
At the Bihari Diaspora gallery,visitors see pictures and rad up on how the first wave of Bihari migration happened in the 19th century after the abolition of slavery in England in 1834. In the 19th century, extreme deprivation and repressive colonial governance in Indian villages had forced many people to migrate to port cities like (then) Calcutta and Madras. “This gallery explores the contribution of migrants from Bihar in the history and culture of lands where they settled, such as like Mauritius, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago,” Vishi Upadhyay told us.
Nitish Kumar had announced that pre-1764 artefacts would be shifted to Bihar Museum from the Patna Museum (where they were previously housed; the post-1764 artefacts — including many Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and coins donated by Rahul Sankrityayan — continue to remain at the latter institute). In fact, some activists, intellectuals and students have protested against the shifting of these invaluable artefacts, among which is the aforementioned Yakshi, from the Patna Museum.
Crores of rupees have been spent on this museum, but there is no official literature available here. “There is no literature or anything (documents) to share on the Bihar Museum at present with me,” the museum director JP Singh, sitting in his third-floor office in the administrative wing of the premises, told us. “Even on 2 October, when it was inaugurated, the museum was not fully ready to be opened for the public. It was opened in haste; we were not ready but this is what the Chief Minister wanted. There is still some work underway at the museum,” Singh added.
He revealed it had been a difficult task to shift artefacts from the Patna Museum to their new location a week before the Bihar Museum’s opening. “It was not easy. These artefacts were shifted by a team of experts and professional handlers from a leading private agency, and we insured them with the Oriental Insurance Company for a sum of Rs 375 crore,” Singh said.
The Bihar Museum has an excellent collection of contemporary artworks in the regional gallery. The works of more than 25 of the state’s best-known artists are being displayed here. An installation by Sanjay Kumar is particularly eye-catching, featuring a collection of 171 Buddhist monk figurines made of brass, with a big bronze Buddha begging bowl at the centre that weighs nearly 6,000 kg. On the anvil is an exhibition of leading contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s work as well. As of now, there is only a flex board that displays an image of Gupta’s installation, titled ‘Yantra’. JP Singh told us that ‘Yantra’ will be on display from 3 November, and the artist will be present at its unveiling. “Subodh Gupta was here on the day the museum was inaugurated and he will come again when his art work is displayed,” Singh said.
When the process for setting up the museum was initiated in 2011, the state government shortlisted five architecture firms. From among them, the Tokyo-based Maki and Associates was chosen to bring the project to life. Maki and Associates executed the design with the help of Mumbai-based Opolis Architects. The foundation stone was laid on 9 June 2013, and construction started in July the same year.
Maki and Associates visualised the design as having four different facets: the museum as an expanse to reflect the layers of Bihar's history, as a journey that reflects the memories and epics of the state, as an educational landscape, and as a symbol that reflects India's past and future. Instead of a compressed building, the architects chose a dispersed scheme in which the structure of the museum was spread out and integrated with the surrounding landscape. They also applied the Japanese concept of ‘Oku’ to the building, which creates a sense of anticipation and contemplation. It allowed for the interplay of courtyards and terraces, alternating indoor spaces with the outdoors.
Corten steel — a material that oxidises when exposed to weather — was used in the building’s construction, “in keeping with the metallurgical tradition of the state” while sandstone, terracotta bricks, fly ash bricks, fly ash mixed concrete, rough granite and black stone made up the museum’s environment. The architects stayed away from any glossy materials, and incorporated solar panels, smart lighting and water conservation schemes in the design.
The Canada-based Lord Cultural Resources (the world’s leading firm specialising in the planning and management of museums) was a consultant on the project, while the construction was executed by Larsen & Toubro.
While the Bihar Museum seems to have met with near universal approval for now, some questions do remain. Historian OP Jaiswal, for instance, is among those who’ve expressed concern over why the Bihar Musem has been registered as a ‘society’ and whether it is a private institution to which the government-owned artefacts from Patna Museum were shifted. “The government should come forward with a specific public notification to inform people about Bihar Museum’s management and safety of the antiquities,” Jaiswal said.
The high entrance fee for the museum is also a sticking point. The entry fee for adults is Rs 100; Rs 50 for children, and Rs 500 for foreigners. Patna Museum, in contrast, charges visitors only Rs 15 as the price of admission. This doesn’t seem to have deterred visitors, however. “The response from visitors has been very good,” said one security guard, posted at the entrance gate. “It has been more than we expected.”
Updated Date: Oct 14, 2017 11:19 AM