National Treasure - Why the Bihar Museum is in a class of its own

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By Dev Raj
  • Published 11.09.17

The Yakshi, which will be for the Bihar Museum what the Monalisa is for the Louvre 

On Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary this year, chief minister Nitish Kumar will gift the country its most modern museum - with Japanese aesthetics, 21st century environment-friendliness and the spotlight firmly on Bihar as the protagonist in the story of India.

Such as when army of Alexander the Great cowered before the forces of Dhana Nanda, the last ruler of the Nanda dynasty of Bihar. Such as when the Mauryan Empire, with its seat at Patliputra or present-day Patna, under Asoka the Great spanned from Afghanistan to Bangladesh. Such as when the Buddha discovered the meaning of life, when Lord Mahavira underlined the importance of non-violence, when universities such as Nalanda and Vikramshila shone the light of knowledge.

The idea

The Bihar Museum is spread across 13.5 acres along Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, better known as Bailey Road, and has been built at a cost of Rs 500 crore.

It is the brainchild of chief minister Nitish Kumar.

"Though Patna Museum is globally acclaimed, it faces shortage of space and the artefacts and exhibits are not maintained on a par with international standards," he had said, explaining the rationale behind the new museum. "Therefore, we have decided to develop a museum of international standard."

Nitish didn't just come up with the idea; he ensured that it took concrete shape. Canada-based Lord Cultural Resources was hired as the master consultant. Japanese firm Maki and Associates won the contract as main architectural consultant, and proposed to execute the design with the help of Mumbai-based Opolis Architects. The foundation stone was laid on June 9, 2013, and construction work started in July same year.

"The idea for a new museum was of the chief minister and the bold decision was needed," said chief secretary Anjani Kumar Singh, also the nodal officer of the museum. "We thought that after separation of Jharkhand, our state can grow by showcasing our heritage and attracting tourists from all over the world."

The Bihar Museum, he stressed, will not just be a viewing gallery of exhibits; "it will be an experience museum".

The design

Maki and Associates visualised the design to have 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 building compressed in floor area, the architects chose a dispersed scheme in which the building is spread out and the surrounding landscape integrated with it.

They applied the Japanese concept of "Oku", which creates a sense of anticipation and contemplation. It allowed for the interplay of courtyards and terraces, alternating indoor spaces with outdoor and breaking the monotony of the viewing experience. Keeping in mind the metallurgical tradition of the land, the architects used 9mm plates of "weathering" or Corten steel on the façade of the buildings.

"Corten steel develops a layer of rust, which prevents further rusting. The colour becomes darker with time and eliminates the need for painting and maintenance," explained M.S. Yahya, planning engineer, building construction department. Engineering giant Larsen & Toubro has executed the construction work under the supervision of the department. "The built-up area of the museum is 2.65 lakh square feet," Yahya added. "There are eight blocks, all inter-connected. Seven are G+1 (ground + first floor) while one, which will serve as the administrative building, is G+4." The museum is environment friendly and uses fly-ash bricks, fly-ash mixed concrete, rough granite, sandstone and terracotta bricks. The architects have not used any glossy material. It has solar panels, smart lighting and water conservation schemes.

The experience

The museum has seven galleries: Orientation, Children's, History, Visible Storage, Historical Art, Regional Art, and Bihari Diaspora.

The Orientation gallery gives viewers a quick peep into the land's rich history. The Children's gallery entertains and educates young visitors with historical anecdotes and natural history objects. The History gallery is divided chronologically, from prehistory to the rise of dynasties. Thematic zones explore the growth of Buddhism and Jainism, the Mauryan empire and Emperor Asoka. Other major sections in the History gallery include the Gupta Empire, important Mahaviharas like Nalanda and Vikramshila, the Pala dynasty, the medieval period, Sher Shah Suri, and the Mughal rule. The Visible Storage gallery houses a terracotta collection from Bihar and other major historical sites of the Indian subcontinent, and includes a numismatics section.

The Historical Art and Regional Art galleries engage with interpretive approaches to art, while the Bihari Diaspora gallery explores the contribution of migrants from the state in the history and culture of lands where they settled - such as like Mauritius, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago.

"The world-renowned, beautiful sculpture of Yakshi from the 3rd century BC will be the USP of this rich and fabulous museum, just like Leonardo da Vinci's Monalisa is the USP of The Louvre in Paris," said Bihar Museum additional director JPN Singh. "Who made the Yakshi is a mystery, but she invites you to imagine what was in her left hand that has been lost to time, how she was sculpted from a single piece of rock, the glazing polish and the amount of labour that must have been involved."

The museum will initially house artefacts from Patna Museum, but it will keep growing and will be connected to other museums across the globe, Singh said.

The challenges

The Bihar Museum, in the words of chief secretary Anjani Kumar Singh, is "ahead of time" for the state and the country. "The museum will be world class, but we are having trouble putting together a world-class team for it," the chief secretary said. "There is a lack of quality manpower. The teaching of museology in our country has not kept pace with time."

A few experts have questioned why the museum has been registered as a society, expressing fears that it is like a private institution to which government-owned artefacts are being shifted. Anjani said it was registered as a society "because such institutions cannot flourish under bureaucracy. Decision-making process of the government is very slow and too rule-bound. The global practice is to grant autonomy to such institutions. In any case, the development commissioner will be the chairman of the management committee and the finance secretary and the art and culture secretary will be part of the team, so the museum will not become a private one."

Efforts are on, he said, to make the museum financially self-sufficient by incorporating a restaurant, souvenir shops, and exhibition halls. A Patna-based architect felt the museum should have been built on a higher plinth, pointing out that the area was under over 3 feet water during the 1975 floods.