Art News & Views

A look into the Patna Museum

by Nanak Ganguly

To scholars in the field, the need for an up-to-date view of the art of South Asia has been apparent for decades. Although many regional and dynastic genres of Indic art are fairly well understood, the broad overall representations of India's centuries of splendour have been lacking. This issue's focus on such aspects of art history is the result of the magazine's aim to provide such a synthesis. A look at the Patna Museum' collection here in this essay is only an attempt to survey such completeness. A part of an attempt that restudies and reevaluates   every frontier of ancient Indic art and the exhibits that do an outstanding portrayal of ancient India's highest intellectual and technical achievement.

Before we talk about our museums and rich heritage we should keep in mind that the current state of knowledge in the field there are certain inequities. Many crucial art yielding sites have never been excavated or studied from an art historical point of view because continuous inhabitations (for example Mathura, where we have a full blown city over an ancient city) or the use of 'the over the centuries' has prevented the usual methods of scholarly research while others remain to be discovered by our archaeologists. If studied the information and scholarship could reveal would no doubt help to necessitate a revision of aspects of the current overview of South Asian artistic development and writings. Similarly, whole periods and regional stylistic developments have to be studied and contextualized within Indic art history. When this occurs, it is likely that some of the subjects that have been emphasized all these years due to the availability of materials might recede to their appropriate nature of the state of knowledge in the field. Today it is necessary to distinguish clearly what is known from what is surmised in the text and the various artifices of history and who speaks of our past- India's past?

It is the trope of our times to locate the question of culture in the realm of the beyond. We are less exercised by annihilation- the death of the author- or epiphany- the birth of the 'subject' while we open up our art history. Our existence and the present today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the present, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix 'post': postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism. The beyond is neither a new horizon nor a leaving behind of the past…(Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but at present we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.

The complex entanglements of cultural currents that emerged with present concerns in postcolonial studies can only be presented adequately in studies, proper archaeological excavations, archival documentations and thus become an experience. If Historicism and even the modern, European idea of history came to non- European peoples in the nineteenth century or somebody's way of saying “not yet” to somebody else. If former simple presentation models are abandoned and the dialogues between cultures as open process, our museum/heritage spaces transforms into a site of 'contemporary gaze'. The present studies shall provoke a dialogue that will not question our own notion of culture and society but will also affect how we imagine ourselves. The dialogue is a continuous process: it has little to do with past concepts of edification but emerges as a vital process, a landscape where we become familiar with the changes influencing our lives. Thus signals out how an eclectic range of imagery from the changing world of pre-colonial/pre-modern India became instrumental in evolving a visual language of collage and citation, which in turn, acted as a vehicle of cultural force, creating and negotiating as the sacred, the erotic, the political, the modern and beyond. The very idea of historicizing which carried with it some peculiarly European assumptions of disenchanted space, secular time and human sovereignty now challenges the notion of our presence in the waiting rooms of metanarratives.

Although the extant art monuments from South Asia may represent only a fraction of the total once produced, the actual quantity of the monuments and artifacts are still staggering. Thus while we talk about our treasures in various museums across the subcontinent, while expressing universal truths themes and truths are not merely the objects of daily life created by and for the majority of the populace once inhabited this beautiful land; they are the products of the skilled craftsmen, the learned intellectuals and the princely purses of their time.

The Patna Museum was established in 1917, possesses extremely rare and valuable antiquities and art objects and occupies a very prominent position as a repository of our art treasures. After Bihar was separated from Bengal in 1912 and Patna was made the capital, some eminent scholars mooted the idea of starting an institution for housing and displaying the antiquities of the province and carry out some research on them. The discovery of the multipillared Mauryan palace at Kumrahar in the excavations of 1913 gave impetus to the idea. Initially the objects collected were housed in the Commissioner's bungalow. Later in 1917 they were moved to the north wing of the Patna High Court and the Museum was formally established. Later in 1928, a new building was constructed for the Museum where the collection is presently kept.

In South Asian Art Bihar had been the nucleus of activities of two great religious leaders Buddha and Mahavira and the centre of two great Empires Mauryas and Guptas. The two great ancient Universities Nalanda and Vikramashila flourished here too. The Maurya period marks the initiation of a continuous, traceable history of works of art in stone from the south Asian region. While the present state of knowledge indicates that Maurya stone productions were largely the result of royal patronage, the artistic evidence across the various stone sculptures reflect what must have been an active long standing tradition of art and architecture, using wood and other perishable materials. Perhaps stimulated by foreign models, the Maurya kings have thus preserved some information about India's early material culture. Among the early collections of the Museum, the most important is the Persepolitan like Capital, which was found at Bulandibagh by Waddel. In 1918 the Museum acquired the life size sculpture of the lady Cauri bearer now popularly known as the Didarganj Yakshi and is the prized object of the museum. In 1929 a number of Buddhist sculptures from Udaygiri and Ratnagiri (Odissa) were brought to the Museum. Then the Museum was fortunate enough to acquire 163 bronzes of Buddha, Bodhisattvas and other icons from Kurkihara in 1930. These form the most important bronze image collection from the Pala period. In 1932, 393 terracotta figurines from Mathura were purchased. The present catalogue of the Museum includes 2282 objects and covers almost all the stone sculptures and architectural pieces, metal images, terracotta and interesting minor antiquities.

Scholars argue that several stone sculptures of human figures demonstrating characteristics of Maurya-period art have been found. Unfortunately, these carvings lack significant inscriptions or meaningful archaeological contexts, and thus, whether they seem were made in Mauryan period remain a controversy. Hence they share technical and stylistic features seen in Mauryan pillars, capitals, and caves, and have been found at sites within the limits of the ancient city of Pataliputra, it may be argued that they were products of the ateliers serving the Mauryan regime. These sculptures are impressive in scale, generally made life size or larger, and suggest that monumental art was produced under the Mauryas for reasons other than Asoka's propagation of dharma.

The records of the Patna Museum relate that the well preserved statue of the female cauri (fly whisk) bearer was found when the villagers at Didarganj, Pataliputra chased a snake in a hole though there are other stories as well. According to some scholars she first made her appearance in as buried object on the banks of the river Ganga at a place called Didarganj on the outskirts of the city of Patna in 1917. ”What attracted the attention of a local maulavi was the jutting edge of the large pedestal of the statue, which, when dug out, turned out to be the base of a life sized-voluptuous female figure, carrying a long fly whisk flung over one shoulder. A semi-nude figure with wide hips and large globular breasts, the statue was impressive on many counts-its size(standing six feet eight inches on its pedestal), the intricate style of its modeling, and, not least, the lustrous polish of the sandstone” (The Endangered Yakshi, Careers of an Ancient Art Object in Modern India by Tapati Guha-Thakurta, History and the Present.eds. Partha Chatterjee & Anjan Ghosh, Permanent Black). Because of the technique, surface refinement, and high polish relate it to Maurya-period works, and some scholars contend that the sculpture belong to the Maurya period works, and some scholars contend that sculpture belongs to the Maurya phase; others, noting the voluptuous forms of the body, the distinctive clump of hair in the centre of the forehead, and the heavy anklets relate the image to second century A.D. sculptures such as the rail figures of Bhutesvara or the veranda figures at Karla. The figure came to be identified as Yakshi, a type of primordial Goddess associated with wealth, abundance and fertility. The date, the representational style and the iconographic identification of the figure remains a matter of debate. Guha-Thakurta writes 'the case of the Didarganj Yakshi provides an ideal instance for reflecting, over time, on the broader institutional and scholarly practices of Indian art history. Her rediscovery is co-terminous with the maturing of the archaeological and museum establishments in colonial India and the birth of art history as a new aestheticised and nationalized field of study. Her career, as it spans the twentieth century, encapsulates the changing colonial, national and international stature of the subject of Indian art over this periods. Its transmutations from a curious archaeological antiquity to a national artistic icon and engendered art treasure to explore some of these shifting sites and trajectories of Art history in modern India….the forging of a national art history would call for the forging of icons that were both 'spiritual' and 'sexual'. For the transformations of figures like the Yakshi from ritual into artistic icons would to a large extent impinge on such negotiations of form and meaning.” The passage from the colonial to the national in recasting of Indian art history was most prominently marked in the prioritizations of a new 'aesthetic' gaze. The Didarganj Yakshi could well have become a sacred object of popular worship had it not been 'rescued' by archaeologists and art historians and turned into an icon of classical Indian art. Partha Chatterjee writes “But as the Yakshi stands in her splendid isolation in an otherwise unremarkable and now somewhat drab provincial museum in Patna, the historian today can ask: Who does the Yakshi exist for there? For the small community of scholars, connoisseurs, museum officials and uninitiated viewers who have invested her with her unique historical, aesthetic and national value, or for the masses who throng the spaces of all such museums in India, who remain completely oblivious of her true art- historical worth, who bring to her at best a curious gaze or totally improper obeisance?”(History and the Present, Permanent Black, 2002)

Images Courtesy: The Author


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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.