A first-of-its-kind biennale in Patna is not just providing a showcase platform to museums across the world, it’s also making a compelling case for Bihar’s rich heritage and history
Udayraj Gadnis’s paintings titled Sun Series, and Shailendra Kumar’s photographs documenting Chhath Puja in Bihar, are part of the newly-inaugurated show Suryakal, as part of the Bihar Museum Biennale
For the aesthetes of Mumbai, whose condescension is mostly the result of where they are located in the Indian urbanscape, a museum biennale in “remote” Patna might seem like a far-fetched idea. “Who goes there?” we were asked. We didn’t have the answer to that, not until we took a 2.5-hour flight arriving at the inconspicuous Jay Prakash Narayan International Airport—ordinary-looking, like the rest of the city, which is packed chaotically with smaller buildings needing paint, and cycle rickshaws that jostle for space with two- and four-wheelers.
Stepping out, we presumed—just like our elite friends back home—that we’d seen the trailer before our impending visit to the city’s premier museum. Surprises were in store.
The Bihar Museum, situated on a 13.5-acre property on Nehru Path, is Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s impressive gift to the city that was once the ancient and historically-edifying Pataliputra. Fully opened to the public in 2017, this is a far cry from the ostentatious cultural centres mushrooming in our metros that look like impersonal seven-star hotels. Muted flooring is flanked by large windows on either side, facing fountains, and bathing the premises in natural light. It’s unpretentious, and unusual, for a city that hasn’t fully embraced modernity.
Batul Raaj Mehta and Anjani Kumar Singh
Last month, the museum became the venue for a global cultural exchange endeavour. The Bihar Museum Biennale, the first-of-its-kind in the world, launched on August 7 and will continue till the last day of this year, hosting museums from across the country and the world, and making room to present the best of art, heritage and history.
An exhibit part of Nepal, Where the Gods Reside
When we arrive, the biennale is already six weeks in. The Three Dimensions of Divinity by Mumbai’s own museum, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya has concluded, as have Modern Indian Painting by Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad; the National Maritime Heritage Complex, Lothal, and the Mystic Universe 360, which came in from Russia. But newer shows and museum showcases have replaced these.
The most recent, Suryakal, opened last week.
The G20 Art Exhibition, Together We Art, curated by Dr Alka Pande, brings together installations, paintings, photographs, sculptures and video by 47 artistes, including 20 G20 member countries and nine invited countries
Presented by MentorArt, it explores our past, present, and future relationship with the sun through the three dimensions of Sabhyata, Samaj, and Samay. Sabhyata opens with the Sun Series paintings by Udayraj Gadnis, an artist inspired by spirituality and dividing his time between Mumbai and London. His work, though fairly undiscovered in the mainstream, has been patronised by some of the biggest business families. Batul Raaj Mehta, chief of strategy at the Bihar Museum Biennale and founding partner of home-grown museum planning firm BRMA that curated the show, says, Gadnis’ exhibition was initially meant to be showcased during Chhath puja, a festival prominently celebrated in Bihar, with women worshipping the sun. “With the biennale taking place this year, it tied in well. But we spent some time researching how we could bring in the connection with Gadnis’ paintings and Chhath,” she says.
Dr Alka Pande
The 12 paintings, which draw from a rich visual palette and are created using mineral paints, crushed rubies and gold dust, explore the sun in different civilisations. “Like the Arab civilisation, Gandhara or Dwarka civilisation. The paintings are not meant to be documented works of research, but abstract creations that are Gadnis’ way of identifying a civilisation’s philosophical culture,” shares Shivani Kasumra, research consultant with BRMA.
(Left) Thijs Biersteker’s Econario, a five-metre-tall robotic plant, provides a representation of how choices countries are making today will affect the state of nature over the next 30 years; (right) Sudarshan Shetty’s untitled tribute to the Taj Mahal shows 250 steel miniature models of the monument
Mehta, who has been instrumental in building and developing permanent gallery spaces at the museum since its inception, was also exposed to the works of local talents over the last decade. That’s how she came across the work of Patna-based photographer Shailendra Kumar, who has been documenting Chhath in the region for over 40 years. His work, which is the second part of the show, Samaj dips into a tiny collection from his vast oeuvre exploring how the festival is celebrated, with award-winning folk singer Dr Nitu Kumari Nootan’s songs creating an immersive environment around the sombre, ritualistic photography.
To connect the exhibition with the contemporary, the curatorial team concluded with a representation of an innovation-powered solar future, and its transformative benefits on human life. This became the third part of the show, titled Samay. “Here, Gadnis’ painting of a possible and imagined Solar Civilisation became the catalyst,” says Mehta. “We came across the Himawari solar lighting system [from Japan], which captures the sunlight through optic fibres, filtering the harmful rays of the sun, and lighting up the space,” she says, adding, “The mood of the room changes based on how strong the sunlight is outside… often you can even see a rainbow here.”
Among the more interesting international ongoing shows are Nepal, Where the Gods Reside, and Together We Art-G20 Art Exhibition, put together by Dr Alka Pande, chief curator of the Bihar Museum Biennale. The Nepal gallery “interweaves the traditional and contemporary artistic practices of different communities” in the country, while exploring the region’s relationship with Buddhism, Shaivism, and Shamanic rituals. There’s the more intricate work by Mubin Shakya, the Vajrapani Mandala, which is a silver filigree and precious stone inlay, showing Vajrapani, one of the earliest-appearing bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. He is holding a vajra, making the vitarka mudra, encircled by an eight-petaled lotus. We also see the colourful rendering of Ram Setu by Rajan Pant; here monkeys are quietly engaged in the task of building a bridge with tiny boulders, while villagers go about their daily task. The sky is a beautiful pink and mellow orange. At the centre of the gallery is a mandala, which was created in just eight days.
For the G20 exhibition, Pande had to work way ahead of time—almost six months, she says, as it involved coordinating with 46 artists, which included 19 from the G20 countries, plus seven invited countries. “The theme of the show was Together We Art,” says Pande, “All the artists’ works dealt with One Earth, One Family, One Future, [which the summit in Delhi also reflected upon]. Their concerns were almost universal,” says Pande. The sculptures, installations, paintings, photographs, and video explore varied themes of ecology, climate change, identity, materiality and sexuality. “All of this enabled cross-cultural dialogue.” The most fascinating installation here was ecological artist Thijs Biersteker’s Econario, which is a five-metre-tall robotic plant, given by the British Council. The robotic plant is driven by data from the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII) developed by the Natural History Museum, to provide a representation of the choices that countries are making today and how this will affect the state of nature over the next 30 years. If a country adopts a more sustainable scenario, the artwork grows towards its full five metres length; if not, it appears stunted.
Other galleries pay tribute to Patna’s many museums, as well as revisit the story of the making of the Bihar Museum.
Beyond the exhibitions, there are sculptural installations from the collections of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. There’s Subodh Gupta’s Cheap Rice that showcases a life-size rickshaw crowded with brass utensils, to reflect upon the Indian reality “caught between tradition and modernity”, and Sudarshan Shetty’s untitled tribute to the Taj Mahal, which shows 250 steel miniature models of the monument to “amplify the dry and cold mechanisation and replication of the icon of immortal love.”
In six years since the museum opened, it has become an important art and cultural centre. General visitor numbers over weekends have been 3,000/per day; on weekdays, footfall is between 1,000 and 1,500. On January 1, a public holiday, they saw 9,000 visitors. The Bihar Museum Biennale has since its opening seen 51,000-plus visitors. “Most visitors are from Patna and the rest of Bihar,” says Anjani Kumar Singh, director general, Bihar Museum, when we meet him at his office. This is not the first biennale that Singh has conceptualised. The Bihar Museum Biennale made its presence felt virtually in 2021, when the world was hit by the more dangerous second COVID-19 wave. The physical debut had to be delayed to this year, but Singh, nonetheless, is happy with how it has shaped up. “While travelling to museums across the world, I realised that there was no common platform for them to showcase their works and rich collections,” he says, explaining how the idea for the biennale took root. Patna, he thinks, was the natural contender to play host. That it has been the seat of several ruling dynasties, including the Magadha and Maurya empires and later, Suris and the Mughals, and birthed many religions, including Buddhism, and artistic traditions (tikuli, papier-mache, Madhubani) made it a region with an unparalleled legacy. The collections in the permanent gallery reflect this heritage and history. With the biennale, Singh hopes to revive the cultural consciousness of its people.
Date until which the biennale will continue in Patna