Art and museums

Bihar Museum Biennale: An Intersection Of Art, History, And Politics

The Biennale, which includes participation from across the globe, has invited a wide host of audiences who not only get to experience contemporary art by national and international artists but also take a walk down the lanes of Bihar’s hundreds of years of civilisational history.

Traditional Paper Mache artworks by Padmashree-winning artist Subhadra Devi
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In the Japanese art canon, there is a concept called “kintsugi” which means “joining by gold”. It involves repairing broken pieces of pottery with gold, thereby making the new piece more valuable than the original, unbroken one. The idea glorifies scars and is a testament to hope that something broken can not only be fixed but also made better.

Sudarshan Shetty’s broken porcelain vases are not fixed with gold but merged with wood. The broken vase, perhaps a symbol of the Anthropocene, is revived by fusing it with the organic wood, symbolising a return to roots. The interplay of the porcelain and wood in Shetty’s untitled jars and cabinet Installation in the ‘Together We Art’ exhibition examines the fusion of Indian and Western traditions and maps the “essence of movement” and the “hidden histories they carry”. The exhibition is being hosted at Bihar National Museum in Patna as part of the Bihar Museum Biennale 2023, which its creators claim is an attempt - just like Shetty’s sculpture - to capture hidden histories. 

If history is a recapitulation of cause and effect, art gives us a prism through which to study it. The Biennale, which was launched on August 7 by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, brings together an eclectic confluence of art and history. Inspired by art biennales like the one held in Kochi, the event brings together multiple platforms showcasing art and history including museums, art galleries, and contemporary artists mingled with antiquity and topped with a generous sprinkling of “shop talk” on the future of historical preservation.

Together We Art 

The Together We Art exhibition which is a highlight of the Biennale is an exhibition of artists in G20 nations. It showcases the works by 19 artists from G20 countries, nine guest countries, and India, aimed at integrating the artistic response to many concerns of the world today. The themes range from universal issues of climate change to gender inclusion, and migration. 

International artists featured at the exhibition include We Weishan from China, Thijs Biersteker from the UK, Thalente Khomo from South Africa, Sara Sejin Chang from the Netherlands, Robert Zhao Renhui from Singapore, Misako Shine of Japan Japan and Zeynep Özüm Ak and Yunus Ak of Turkey.

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Sudarshan Shetty's installation displayed at the 'Together We Art' exhibition in the Bihar Museum Biennale in Patna

Speaking to Outlook, Omani artist Abdulmajeed Karooh said that he loved Patna and Bihari food as well as the cultural immersion he was experiencing in India. “It’s a great opportunity to interact with the art crowd here and to see how things work in India. I love the culture and the colours,” he states. The artist is obsessed with doors and his art represents cultural shifts in Omani history and culture. “This particular door represents the door to the city of ABC. It’s a scene from history. That orange light represents the first ray of sunlight that used to hit the city when the door was opened in the morning to allow in the city’s first visitors,” Karooh states. He adds that it’s also a reminder of the blood that was shed on these gates. 

Apart from Shetty, other contemporary Indian artists whose works were displayed included Subodh Gupta, Sanjay Kumar, Sanatan Dinda, Ravinder Reddy, and Ayesha Seth Sen among others. 

The Biennale comes at the time of G-20 “festivities” across the nation which have been heavily focused on emphasising culture as a public good and a point to exert soft pressure. Within the visible charade of integration, some works of artists stand out. Gupta’s installation “Spiritual Tools” reveals his take on the ritualistic chanting of Mantras while counting Rudraksha beads, associated with Hinduism, as a form of purifying body and soul. The artist switches the beads with “lotaas”, used for cleaning and water storage purposes, bridging the gap between the “sacred” and “personal realms”. Sanjay Kumar’s sculpture also presented a spectre of the present age, a faceless humanoid ‘Statue of Peace’ with symbols from various religions etched on its robes, standing in the repentant surrender of the “mental evils and atrocities committed against human beings as a whole”. 

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Installation titled 'Spiritual Tools' by artist Subodh Gupta

While cultural synthesis seemed to be a visibly imbibed theme, alienation of the individual in fusion cultures and a marked protest against forced integration were perhaps also latent themes running across the artworks. 

Preserving Museums 

The event has hosted a series of symposiums on a variety of interlinked disciplines like curatorial strategies, museum culture, and industrial practices. The Biennale features collections from four Indian museums and eight international exhibitions from countries like Brazil, France, Nepal, and Italy. The sessions included keynote speeches by Prof. Yannick Lintz, President Musee Guimet, Paris, who set the tone for the underlying need to revamp curatorial and display practices to ensure the sustainability and inclusivity of museums for future generations who are likely to be more and more digitised. 

Contextualising the discourse about the contemporary art and antiquity market and the international standards of display and management to the Indian museum space were industry doyens like Dr Pheroza Godrej, Director, Cymroza Art Gallery in Mumbai, Rakhi Sarkar, Director, Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA) and art historian Dr Saryu Doshi. The trio highlighted the need to change museums from “repositories of dust” to spaces that foster creativity and knowledge. 

According to Doshi, the role of museums is not just preservation but also creation of culture. But the lofty role of culture creation also comes with an industrial and rather unromantic backend. Sarkar highlighted the need to streamline industry processes that facilitate the transportation of art and antiquarian objects or elaborate exhibits. “Bad art policy affects the quality and quantity of art being produced. We need a forward-looking policy framework for arts and culture that can benefit both the industry and the artists,” Sarkar stated. 

Curated by Alka Pande, the Biennale has also brought fresh attention to the state of Bihar and the role it has played in culture creation in India by highlighting the newly built Bihar Museum, a brainchild of the Nitish Kumar-led government in Bihar which has been trying to bring about a cultural revival in the state. Speaking at the ceremony, Kumar said the museum transcends the notion of being a mere repository of artefact and metamorphoses into an “immersive experience museum”. 

With its “unique galleries dedicated to regional art, contemporary art, children and Bihar Santati, which proudly showcases the contributions of Biharis across the annals of time as they lent their brilliance to the world,” he said.

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The state government is constructing an over 1.5 km long underground tunnel to connect the Bihar Museum with the nearby Patna Museum. 

The Biennale, which includes participation from across the globe, has invited a wide host of audiences who not only get to experience contemporary art by national and international artists but also take a walk down the lanes of Bihar’s hundreds of years of civilisational history. Bihar Museum’s chairperson Ashwini Kumar had said at one of the events promoting the Biennale held in collaboration with Outlook in Mumbai that the Biennale was as much a project in curatorial preservation as it was one in the preservation of memory. The Bihari has lost a sense of connection to their roots and history. Kumar believes that a Biennale like this is the perfect opportunity to revive that sense of pride and belongingness in Biharis. 

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