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A gentle pat, na, on Bihar’s back?

Updated on: 20 March,2024 06:52 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Giving you a totally one-sided view of Bihar’s capital. Because that’s the one side I rarely get to hear

A gentle pat, na, on Bihar’s back?

An aerial view of Patna by night

Mayank ShekharYou only have to be around genteel, literary-inclined Biharis to sense the undying love they universally share for Basu Bhattacharya’s black & white film, Teesri Kasam (1966).

It’s the first and only time, they believe, Biharis felt artistically seen in mainstream Hindi cinema. Teesri Kasam is, of course, a gentle romance between a nautch girl (Waheeda Rehman), and a bhola-bhala bullock-cart driver (Raj Kapoor); set around Purnea, Araria.

A classic, enduring musical, suffused with folk and modern songs, the film was produced by the famed lyricist, Shailendra—story and dialogues by the great litterateur, Phanishwar Nath Renu, based on his rural novella, Mare Gaye Gulfam.

During sessions at the Bihar Samvadi literature festival I’m at, in Patna, Renu feels too visibly alive, and around. The way Tagore or Ray have, in Bengal—decades after their deaths. 

Teesri Kasam is to be contrasted with the popular vision of Bihar captured since, in films/series—from Shool, Gangaajal to Gangs to Wasseypur; Maharani to Khakee—centred on dreaded buffoons for politicians and gangsters, or both. 

They certainly reflect one side of Bihar, between the 1990s and mid-noughties, in particular, when the state’s image, from afar, trampled young Biharis into severe under-confidence. They hesitated over even owning their regional identity in public.

Renu remains relevant, beyond nostalgia, because his writings are deeply cinematic/visual. That said, as Prashant Kashyap, moderator at the lit-fest in Patna, tells us, 60 per cent of currently published Hindi literature is authored by Biharis. 

Surely, they engage in broader, more intimate/humanistic themes. In the performing arts—surely, so does the pumping theatre scene of Patna, which I pleasantly discover, hanging out with my local actor-friend, Ramesh Singh. 

He takes me to a relatively plush stage, House of Variety (“Patna’s Prithvi”), above Regent Cinema. We doze off a li’l, catching rehearsal of their forthcoming play, Kamala Surayya.

On our way, we’d passed by the massive Kalidas Rangalaya—shut down; for renovation (hopefully)—where actor Pankaj Tripathi earned his early stage-cred; Premchand Rangashala has replaced the venue since. 

“We have a large artistic community, easily 500-plus, regularly performing on stage, meeting over addas/chai at the Arts College,” Ramesh, 50-plus, tells me. 

Decades ago, he used to do theatre with Pankaj. Ramesh moved to Mumbai once, around 2006, only to return—realising the magic of the metropolis didn’t match its reality, or realty, as it were. 

As we speak, Patna’s municipal corporation (only such in the country) is setting up a full-fledged drama school, along the lines of NSD. 

What if I told you that, by far, the finest museum to come up in independent India is in Patna, since 2015? You’d be as surprised as when a multiplex-chain exec in Mumbai told me the biggest fan-base for Japanese anime in the country is in Patna!

The new Bihar Museum (BM) is near the old Patna Museum (around since 1917)—a tunnel will soon connect the two. This befits Patna, that was Pataliputra, among the world’s greatest capitals in history, around 2,300 years ago, when mathematician Aryabhatt, Kama Sutra’s Vatsayan, Arthashastra’s Chanakya, once resided.

But even the multimedia and modern-art spaces of the swanky BM equal Manhattan’s MoMA; no less—and I don’t conciliatorily mean it in the way of the puny, pointless Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru.  

BM’s packed, when I visit it over the weekend. As is the Ganga Path for the 20-km riverfront, Patna’s Marine Drive (five and half times the size of Mumbai’s)—as mild-mannered Patna-ites, including younglings on dates, chill over ‘tandoori chai’, ‘chicken littis’, inevitably shooting Insta Reels. 

The buzzing Champaran Meat Shop, best roadside eatery in town, is full of men. Gender ratios are fairest at countless, tony cafes across the city, I’m told. 

This is dramatically different from the concept of “auto-dating”, for ‘speed-dating’, that Patna girls had introduced me to, when I was writing about the city in 2010. Wherein high-school/college couples entered shared-autorickshaws, to keep circling around Patna—knowing that nobody will figure they’re out on a date!

There is, though, a staid sub-text to Patna. It is a cent per cent sarkari city. Power, as in, politics, press, bureaucracy, alone define access/prominence. Even money seems secondary. 

This is probably true for most state capitals. Bihar seems significantly more feudal, still. Even as it remains among the fastest growing states, in terms of GDP (it’s third in India). The accounting base is too low. 

The best homes and offices belong to the government. Including the tallest, i.e. the 18-storey Biscomaun Bhawan. From the revolving restaurant at the top floor of which, 

I soak in a bird’s eye view of a beautifully lit-up, big city—chiefly impressed by Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate-like Sabhyata Dwar, opening into a vast park, convention centres.

An arterial, seven-kilometre flyover stretch, that was once a railway track, paces through the city’s heart.

None of the above I knew to exist, when I did a pit-stop in Patna in 2019, deeming it to be a “dump” (in my head). Five years, unless you’re an infant, is not too long. 

Why am I telling you all this? Because, until I visited Patna, nobody had told me any of it, either. Nope, not asking anybody to move there—enough people, already! 

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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