A city that rejects its architectural heritage – while expressing a preference for glass and concrete – ends up endangering its future. Patna seems to be on growth steroids, with its residents seduced by the appearance of ‘big buildings’ on its skyline. Kunal Dutt, who has been involved with the ‘Save Historic Patna Collectorate’ movement since April 2016, contemplates how this symbolic turn to modernity may be constituted, in fact, by a primitive violence that eliminates not only physical structures but also, the popular, collective memory they store.
In February, I was in Patna and met Devendra Kumar, an employee of the District Board Patna, who was nine years old when Gandhi (1982) was being filmed. He told me, “I saw the British director (Sir Attenborough) and his team when they were shooting here. The District Magistrate office was also used for the court and corridor scene. I don’t understand this demolition move. The government should preserve these buildings and use them to attract tourists.”
I was born in a city that is over 2,500 years old, I went to a school that is nearly 160 years old, and while growing up, passed by several buildings and landmarks that have stood for several centuries as silent sentinels of time. Yet as a child or an adolescent, I never felt the sense of ownership for Patna that I feel now. But, having wised to my roots, albeit late, the sense of loss one feels for this historic city now far exceeds the delayed sense of ownership which, like a double-edged sword, cuts on both sides of my heart.
Patna, like Varanasi, is one of the very few cities in the world where civilisations have flourished uninterruptedly era after era. From the Mauryan Empire to the British Raj, Patna saw itself rise and fall and rise again, but like many great cities, has now become the victim of unchecked modernity. Ironically, more than the erasure of the past and decay of heritage, it is the complete indifference of the city-dwellers and the apathy of the government that has dealt a more painful blow to Patna’s withering soul that precariously clings to its impoverished being. And, perhaps, no other city landmark exemplifies this tragedy more than Patna’s historic Collectorate, which awaits an uncertain fate in the shadow of the wrecking ball.
The over 200-year-old Dutch-era building sitting picturesquely on the banks of the Ganga is teetering on the brink of oblivion. The Bihar government has proposed to raze the iconic buildings to the ground to make way for a highrise complex. And if the demolition goes as planned, very soon Patna would lose not just great architectural heritage, but also an uncanny connection with Mahatma Gandhi, thanks to his Oscar-winning biopic, produced in 1982.
Endowed with high ceilings and hanging skylights, the Collectorate — alongside equally iconic Patna College, and the remnants of an opium godown in Gulzarbagh — comprises one of the last surviving signatures of the Dutch history of Patna. After assuming the reins from the Dutch in the 1820s, the British made a worthy addition to its architectural landscape, such as the District Board Patna building erected in 1938, famed for its iconic Meeting Hall with its inside walls that have flat Corinthian columns and floral motif. The Collectorate has joined the ever-swelling list of endangered built heritage in this historic Indian city which, over the last several years, has seen many of its veritable landmarks losing the battle to the onslaught of modernity.
A few parts of Gandhi’s script were set in Champaran, the place which made the man the Mahatma, and Sir Attenborough came down to Patna in the early 1980s for his shoot in Motihari. But due to lack of time and communication links across the Ganga, he recreated Motihari in Patna. The Dutch-era Record Room was dressed up as Motihari Jail and the District Magistrate’s Office and its corridor were used for the famous courtroom scenes set in 1917. That courtroom episode was a turning point in his life, which catapulted him into a people’s hero, and the historical incident that gave birth to his ‘Satyagraha’ movement that ultimately brought the country to freedom.
Sir Attenborough’s film with Ben Kingsley’s powerful performance as Gandhi made such an impact among Indians, he became for the rest of his life ‘Gandhi’ for us. Thus, this film’s shooting at the Collectorate inseparably linked the Mahatma’s legacy with the people of Patna and Bihar. Dismantling it, therefore, also amounts to obliterating those great memories which should instead be capitalised on for promoting Gandhi tourism circuit in the state.
The proposed demolition has coincided. with Bihar government’s ongoing centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s first arrival in Patna (and Bihar) in 1917 which would culminate in April 2017. The story of Patna’s loss of heritage is heartbreaking and the absence of local preservation laws for buildings protected neither centrally nor under the state, exposes them to wanton destruction. It is even more ironic that Patna Collectorate has been listed a heritage building in Bihar government’s 2008 publication by the Art and Culture Department: Patna: A Monumental History, but the listing is merely ornamental until it gets notified. And while the Collectorate may still be awaiting its ultimate fate, several other colonial landmarks have made way for monstrous highrises, devoid of any architectural soul or sense of aesthetics. From Dak Bungalow to Bankipore Central Jail and Civil Surgeon’s and District and Session Judge’s bungalows and the Indian Nation press building to several private mansions that once dotted Patna’s finest streets — all have been consigned to oblivion, so much so that they have not been accorded even an obituary.
(Born and raised in Patna, Kunal Dutt is an independent researcher, an avid photographer, and an inveterate heritage lover. He is currently spearheading a campaign to ‘Save Historic Patna Collectorate’ from demolition. Views expressed are personal.)