28 October, 2020

Sledgehammer In The Armoire Of Philistines

The Bihar government wants to take the axe to heritage buildings in the Patna Collectorate. An SC order has arrested the blow for now.

Steps into history
The facade of the Record Room in the Patna Collectorate complex
Courtesy: Kunal Dutt/ Save Historic Patna Collectorate
Sledgehammer In The Armoire Of Philistines

The delectations of history and heritage leave many unmoved, especially votaries of modern architectural monstrosities, the flagpoles of so-called ‘progress’. For them, the past, indeed, is a foreign country. Nitish Kumar appears to be at a loss to understand the fuss around a centuries-old building in the Patna Collectorate complex, which his government wants to demolish to construct a ritzy highrise in its place. “How can an opium warehouse from the colonial times be a historical structure?” the Bihar chief minister wonders. The CM, evidently, hasn’t had time to get into the immensely significant socio-economic role opium played in northern and eastern India, its part in the migration of Indians, its export to China, subsequent resistance and the Opium Wars all the way to the rise of Chinese nationalism.

“People say it is a historical building but as per the report of the Director (Archaeology), it was built by the Dutch East India Company to stock up opium and saltpetre,” Nitish says. “We also know that shooting of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was held there, but these things do not bestow any special historical significance.”

Ahead of the assembly elections due in October-November, Nitish has been on an inauguration spree. He inaugurated six government buildings worth Rs 85.69 crore through a video conference, and laid the foundation of 23 others worth Rs 536.53 crore, which included a five-storey Patna Collectorate complex to be built at an estimated budget of Rs 186 crore. The ambitious project, spread over 3,484 sq. metres, will have 39 buildings, including the district magistrate’s office.

Construction of a new collectorate has been on Nitish’s wishlist for years. “Owing to damaged structures on Patna Collectorate campus, we have been trying to build a new complex since 2010,” Nitish says. “But work could not start till now, because the matter was in court. Now, I am happy that the stay on its construction has been lifted.”

His happiness, however, proved ephemeral, as the Supreme Court has ordered a status quo now. Nitish’s rem­arks came after the Patna High Court recently lifted the interim stay while hearing a petition filed by the Patna Chapter of the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), challenging the government’s decision to dismantle the old structures. In its judgment, the HC observed that neither the Archaeological Survey of India nor the newly constituted Bihar Urban Arts and Heritage Commission had intervened in declaring the monument a historical one.

Seat of opium clerks

A sketch of the Record Room, built by the Dutch East India Company.

Courtesy: Aleks Pirozenoks/ Save Historic Patna Collectorate

The court observed that as per insp­ection reports by experts, the Patna Collectorate complex had no importance from the point of view of history, architecture, art, aesthetics and culture. “The experts have already exp­ressed their opinion on the issue and, as such, we find no reason to interfere with the same…., ” it said. It further obs­erved, “In history, there may have been some significance attached to this complex, but that is for the use of storage of opium and saltpetre for commercial purpose…. The building has no significance with art, culture or heritage or with that of any of the movements of the struggle for freedom…. Equally, no celebrated person is associated with the same.”

The Patna Collectorate complex, parts of which are over 250 years old, is situated on the banks of the Ganga. Some of its buildings, especially the rec­ord room and the old district engineer’s office, have high ceilings, huge doors and hanging skylights, and are considered by experts to be the last surviving symbols of Dutch architecture in Bihar. The austerely symmetrical record room, built by the Dutch East India Company, has a colonnaded facade with Tuscan columns. Other British-era structures with mixed Anglo-Dutch architecture dot the complex, such as the DM’s office, which came up later during British rule. The campus was also used as an observation station during the Great Trigonometrical Survey, the landmark 19th century undertaking that aimed to map the entire subcontinent with scientific precision. The Collectorate’s latest brush with prominence was in 1981, when Richard Attenborough shot some scenes of his Oscar-winning movie, Gandhi (1982).

However, as recent developments suggest, mere history does not grant immunity from the wrecking ball of a modern civilisation. According to the Nitish government, the dilapidated buildings on the Collectorate campus are beyond repair and need to be demolished for redevelopment—part of the Smart City project plan. Now, after the SC order, demolition has again been put on hold.

On September 18, while hearing a special leave petition filed by the Patna chapter of INTACH challenging the Patna High Court verdict, the SC ord­ered status quo and sought the Bihar government’s response in two weeks, much to the relief of the heritage lovers who have been running a spirited ‘save Patna Collectorate campaign’ since 2016.

Kunal Dutt, an independent res­earcher, who has been fighting for heritage preservation in Bihar for over a decade, tells Outlook that Patna’s built heritage, particularly historic but unprotected buildings, has been deliberately left to decay to prepare the ground for their demolition. “The government says the Collectorate is neither listed under the ASI nor the state archaeology, so, ‘it’s not a heritage’, but the truth is that this landmark and other historic structures in Patna and Bihar have been deliberately kept out of the ambit of protection, so they can swing the wrecking ball in the name of development,” Dutt avers.

Cry, Memory

Some buildings in the Collectorate are in a pitiable shape.

Photograph by Sonu Kishan

Incidentally, the Patna Collectorate is not the first pre-Independence complex facing demolition. In 2019, the 100-year-old Gole Market, the city’s first planned municipal market, was knocked down by the Patna Municipal Corporation in the name of the Smart City project. The red-tiled building was designed by New Zealand-born arc­hitect Joseph Fearis Munnings after Patna became the new capital of Bihar and Orissa province in 1912. Similarly, the 1885-built Anjuman Islamia Hall was pulled down in 2018.

“Between 2010 and 2015, several historic buildings were razed, including Bankipore Central Jail and Baoli Hall in Patna City,” says Dutt. “Ironically, Patna Collectorate, Gole Market, Anjuman Islamia Hall and Baoli Hall were all listed as heritage sites in Patna: A Monumental History, published by the Bihar government in 2008. Since 2016, they have spun the opium warehouse narrative only to delegitimise the historical value of the Collectorate.”

A restoration plan fell on deaf ears, so did Dutch offers to help preserve the buildings.

Experts say that the Patna Collectorate is a heritage site by virtue of its age, unique architecture, material and skills used from that era, which cannot be replicated. “These buildings are our heritage and we must take care of our legacy,” asserts Dutt, at the forefront of the campaign to save the Patna Collectorate, which has found support in over 15 countries, inc­luding the US, the UK, Italy, Iran, Scotland and Canada since 2016. Earlier, it had even presented a restoration and reuse plan for the Dutch-era record room as a ‘Collectorate Cafe’ to the government and the Patna district administration, but to no avail.

After the arrival of the Dutch, Patna turned into a centre for opium and saltpetre trade. They built many landmark buildings on a sprawling campus along the majestic Ganga that became the seat of the district administration after 1857. INTACH, which has been fighting a legal battle to save the complex, trots out the obvious argument that just because opium was stored in a building does not deprive it of its historic value.

Author-conservationist Yashaswini Sharma, associated with the battle to save the Asiatic Building in Bangalore, concurs. “The opium trade is part of India’s history. One cannot look at it from a contemporary lens today. It is myopic on part of policy makers not to consider a building as part of heritage just because it once stored opium ,” says the author of Bangalore: The Early City.

Interestingly, the Netherlands gover­nment had also sought to offer help in preserving these buildings. In 2016, the then Dutch ambassador, Alpho­nsus Stoelinga, wrote to the CM to imp­ress upon him the need for pre­s­­e­­r­­ving the “shared heritage” of the two countries and having it listed under the Bihar state archaeology department.

London-based Gandhi Foundation, too, appealed against the demolition of the Collectorate, where a few iconic scenes of Gandhi were shot. The Dutch-era record room was shown as a jail, while the British-built DM office was shown as a courtroom in the film.

Now, the Supreme Court stay has cheered the champions of culture and heritage across the country and beyond. Renowned historian Irfan Habib says that the whole world believes in protecting and preserving heritage, but “we have no respect for the past, whether it is history or monuments”. He adds, “Many European parliaments are 500-600 years old, but we are coming up with something like the Central Vista project to demolish ours, which is less than a 100 years old. If we are all­owed to have our way, we will even get the Taj Mahal razed to the ground.”

According to Habib, one may find the Dutch connection of the Patna Collectorate’s 200-year old buildings interesting from the historical point of view but they want to demolish old structures just to put their names on the plaques on new buildings. “It is cheap politics, which should be avoided,” he says. “The cultures and civilisations which have shown utter disregard for the past have not survived.” Can these cornered brick-and-mortar structures see off a warped sense of ‘smart’ modernity, just as they have survived regimes more steeped in hauteur and self-importance than the current one in Patna? 


Possible Lives For The Patna Collectorate

  • A 233-year-old Danish tavern building at Serampore in West Bengal was restored from a dilapidated state to a beautiful heritage cafe and a lodge on the banks of Hooghly. The Patna Collectorate could be redeveloped on similar lines.
  • The buildings, set on a sprawling campus along the Ganga, have impresssive high ceilings. They could be turned into a cultural hub to showcase arts and crafts of Bihar.
  • A Patna-themed library can stock all the books and manuscripts related to the city, from ancient Patliputra to modern Patna
  • A vibrant multi-utility space integrating artistic, educational and cultural activities along with a cafe and a souvenir shop
  • Underused warehouses in Fort Kochi in Kerala have been converted into retail and art spaces. It could be redeveloped in a similar fashion.
  • Patna has two museums that house artifacts, but no museum to tell the story of Patna and its evolution. One building of the Collectorate could be transformed into a museum, with a collection of old photographs and paintings to tell the story of the ancient city.
  • According to the UK’s Gandhi Foundation, it needs to be preserved, for posterity, not just as a signpost of history, but also as an enduring legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, thanks to the biopic by Richard Attenborough.
  • With the Collectorate and other such buildings on the strand, such as Patna College’s administrative building and the Gulzarbagh Press situated along the Ganga, a Dutch-British circuit could be developed in Patna, one of the historic cities in the world
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