The Bihar Museum has made Patna a tourist destination
Wherever you build it, they will come
Let me start with a disclaimer: I pay rickshaw wallahs according to the metre. I like my chaat with extra god (sweet) chutney, and my skin is perpetually covered in a thin sheen of perspiration. Which is to say, I am from Mumbai. The fault lines of North and South identities run through Mumbai, a point that, longitudinally speaking, falls roughly in the middle of India. But it remains distant from the Hindi heartland.
Mumbai, like Goa, can loosely be termed a part of western India – a designation that says as much about the culture of these places as their geography. Each new community is a strand in the warp-and-weft of people who have pressed into the city over the centuries, so deeply integrated into the cloth as to be mundane. That’s why Mumbai’s oldest dock is named after an Iraqi Jewish immigrant, its most notorious Irani cafe after a Belgian despot, and its largest train station – a sprawling Victorian Gothic edifice with cathedral ceilings – after a Maratha emperor.
Wearing the identity of a Mumbaikar says little about your antecedents, only about your present. It’s the city of dreams, for the outsiders who come to make their fortunes in Mumbai, and those who already have. So when I got the opportunity to visit the Bihar Museum, I reached out to one of these transplants for guidance: my friend Karishma who hails from Patna, the city of flyovers.
Karishma is now a successful model and actor (here’s how a kitty party aunty from Agra landed a role in Bollywood.) When I told her about the upcoming day trip to her hometown, she introduced me to a group of her childhood friends, brushing off my concerns that I didn’t yet know my itinerary or where I was staying: “There are only two hotels in Patna, and they’re ten minutes apart.” I can spot twice as many hotels from the window of my Juhu flat. Before I’d even set foot on the plane, Bihar’s capital was exposing my ignorance, pricking away at my cosmopolitan bubble.
But I was ready to soak it all in. I enthusiastically asked Karishma’s friends for their recommendations after my tour of Bihar Museum. What was the essential sightseeing in Patna?
Our WhatsApp group erupted with laughing emojis. Apparently, there was no sightseeing. Yes, it was smaller than Jaipur – a naive question that sparked further hilarity. (In my mind, both state capitals had only a few million people and could therefore be compared.) There was no such thing as a five-star hotel, and Bihar was a dry state. “Just remember: low hopes, medium rewards,” warned one friend.
As a BIMARU state – an acronym designed to wipe out hope altogether – Bihar has lagged behind national averages on development, law and order, and infrastructure. In large part thanks to a string of politicians who have made their motto ‘main aayi hoon UP Bihar lootne’.
So what is a sprawling art museum doing in a place like Patna? An answer is offered on a plaque in the building: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that for centuries, the history of Bihar was but the history of India writ large.’ The quote from our first President Rajendra Prasad is a reminder of how different the story of Bihar used to be.
The seat of the Maurya and Gupta Empires, the birthplace of Buddhism, the home of Nalanda – Bihar’s past as a centre of culture and progress is the stuff of legend. Just consider the discovery of the Didarganj Yakshi, displayed in pride of place in the museum’s Women and Deities exhibit. The life-size feminine figure dates back to the 2nd century and was excavated in 1917 on the banks of the Ganga.
Allegedly, a washerman at the river would beat clothes against a hunk of sandstone. When he spotted a snake disappearing into a nearby hole, the locals decided to dig it out – revealing the Yakshi on the underside of the stone.
Whether this story is true or not is besides the point. What is an urban myth if not a parable used by a city to define itself? The rich heritage of Patna lies cheek by jowl with its modern inhabitants, although it boasts no pink palaces or skyscrapers.
To an outsider, the story of the washerman might underline how divorced the current reality of Bihar is from its illustrious history. Today, Bihari ‘bhaiyas’ contribute to urban migrant labour in wealthier states, taking on the jobs few others are willing to do. For this, they have historically been met with discrimation and accusations of hogging local employment, suppressing local languages, and driving up crime.
Yet this uncharitable perception no longer captures the evolution of Bihar. As one local explained, the days when people would get kidnapped on the streets of Patna are gone. The coal mafia makes for a good Bollywood thriller but Bihar has now become known for its IAS and IPS exam dominance, flying in the face of its dismal education statistics.
The Bihar Museum is an extension of this dogged determination to succeed, as well as a junction between the state’s past and present. Not to be confused with the nearby Patna Museum, it’s bigger, shinier, the result of a nearly ₹500cr cultural spend by the government. After a global competition, the architectural contract was awarded to a Japanese firm, while a Canadian consultancy firm designed the exhibits. For all the foreign influence in its award-winning design and planning, the museum never feels like it doesn’t belong to Patna.
I’d been sceptical when Bihar Museum was described to me as state-of-the-art, “like the MoMA”, but I was wrong. It’s a world wonder: a government project done right. Collections of ancient sculptures and artefacts are meticulously preserved; the Children’s Gallery features an interactive jungle and a motion-sensor graphic of local dance forms; a facsimile of a monk’s cell in Nalanda is brought to life by a projection of him performing his daily rites. The entire museum is conscious of dimensional space so that each piece leaps out of its display, staving off the fatigue that comes with endless viewing. (Are you always exhausted?)
The exterior is equally thoughtful in design. There’s nothing imposing about the Bihar Museum, a low-slung structure of Corten steel and grey stone spreading across the nearly 14-acre site. Buildings cluster around a cylindrical atrium, connected by glass corridors and courtyards that allow you to walk through the layers of this massive complex. The effect is minimalist and relaxed, a seamless addition to the landscape.
A couple of months before my trip to Patna, I’d stopped by the NGMA Mumbai, paying a princely sum of ₹20 to view a Rini Dhumal retrospective. The weekend crowd was sparse, muttering in hushed tones suited to the dimly lit mausoleum. The NGMA is open and affordable for all art lovers and enthusiasts (here’s how you can unleash your inner artist.)
The fee for Bihar Museum is five times higher, yet it offers entry into a more democratic space. You don’t have to know who Paresh Maity is to feel welcome – browse a gallery, sit with friends in a grassy courtyard, meet budding local artists who have set up their wares.
A good museum curates and displays pieces to their best advantage, but a great museum tells their story and ours. What struck me most about the Bihar Museum were the residents of Patna who, on a Monday afternoon, had flocked to take selfies with the exhibits and hang out on benches under the skylights. For visitors from seemingly every class and background, this is a public place in the truest sense.
The Bihar Museum fits right into the city Patna is becoming, bolstered by the support of its people who are fully justifying their government’s expensive cultural projects. The most densely packed state in the country with the youngest population is revisiting its roots, refusing to be solely defined by the approval of those outside.
Take the Bihar Diaspora gallery, featuring the faces of immigrants and indentured labourers who made their mark around the world. A large screen maps out their stories and travel routes stretching from Bangladesh to the Caribbean, the search for a new home and the loss of an old one.
When you leave a place that doesn’t offer you enough, it doesn’t mean that you, in turn, have nothing to offer. Most of the gallery curators are from Bihar and were employed at prestigious museums and universities in Delhi and Mumbai before returning to their home state. A few short years after its opening, they’ve managed to make Bihar Museum one of the finest in the country.
So don’t just fly over Patna, a speed bump on the journey to Bodhgaya and the Ashoka pillars. It’s worth spending a weekend exploring the galleries and feasting on spicy litti mutton with warm, generous locals. The people there are dreamers — how else did they manifest a world-class museum in Patna, Bihar?