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?
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.
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.”