Patna Collectorate iconic living heritage, demolition will be colossal loss: PU historians – art and culture

Patna University historians have joined a growing chorus for preserving the Collectorate complex here, saying the centuries-old landmark is the “city’s pride” and an “iconic living heritage” that should be saved and passed on to the coming generations.

They also cautioned that the demolition of the Patna Collectorate will be a “colossal loss” and “create a gap” in the continuity of long and layered history of the city.

The current and former heads of the history department, other scholars, the present vice chancellor of the 103-year-old university and his immediate predecessor, have all appealed to the Bihar government to not demolish this “city icon”.

Surendra Kumar, the head of History Department at the prestigious university, said, “Collectorate is our living heritage, our living history, and should definitely be preserved. No two ways about it”.

“In fact, the buildings of Collectorate are living proof that Patna was a thriving riverine port city even in the 17th century and a preferred destination for the Dutch, Danish and others, even before the British arrived on Patna soil. And, Patna being on the banks of Ganga stood out as a riverine trade hub,” he said.

These buildings, thus, form part of the “glorious era” of the city when Patna was already an economically thriving city where multi-national companies like the Dutch East India Company invested and opened factories to trade in sugar, cotton, silk, saltpetre, opium, among other products, Kumar said.

“So much being spoken about the opium trade link to the buildings now, with the government adding a rather pejorative connotation to it. The opium trade rather amplifies the historic value of the buildings. Opium wars were fought and Patna opium was exported to China and other regions. It is part of history, one can’t negate it sitting conveniently in the 21st century,” he added.

Bharati Kumar, a former head of the PU’s History Department, asserted that Collectorate has buildings from Dutch era and British era, and it has been the seat of the district administration since 1857 when even Patna was part of the Bengal presidency.

“So, it has its own history of over 160 years as a Collectorate. As a silent sentinel, it has seen centuries of history unfold, from creation of Bihar province in 1912 to two World Wars, the country’s Independence, and of course the Dutch history to begin with. It is a part of the evolution of the city,” she said.

Preserving the Collectorate buildings is important to “preserve that continuity of history, without being judgmental” and see it as part of urban history of Patna, she said.

The Dutch-era buildings of the Collectorate, include the Record Room, the oldest structure on the campus, and Old District Engineer’s Office building, while the DM Office and 1938-built District Board Patna buildings were constructed during the British period.

The 12-acre complex, parts of which are over 250 years old, has high ceilings, huge doors and hanging skylights, and it also featured in some of the key scenes in the Oscar winning film ‘Gandhi’.

Patna University Vice Chancellor G K Choudhary said, “It should be preserved as the historic architectural fabric of Patna with memories of several generations attached to it”.

Scholar and ex-VC of Patna University, RBP Singh, who retired during the lockdown period, termed the Collectorate a “pride of Patna” and an “architectural beauty” that must be preserved.

“In fact, the Collectorate before being shifted to its present site near Gandhi Maidan, used to be housed in the building, now serving as the main administrative block of the historic Patna College that was founded in 1863. This Dutch-era block was also used as an opium warehouse earlier, but now the building is a glorious heritage,” said Singh, also a former principal of the Patna College.

Bharati Kumar said history has various layers, and old buildings represent the “whole vocabulary of architecture” of different eras, and help us understand the “evolution of the city”.

The Bihar government had in 2016 proposed to demolish the Patna Collectorate to make way for a new complex, sparking huge public outcry and appeal to save it from various quarters in India and abroad.

Heritage body INTACH in August 2019 took the matter to the Patna High Court and filed two PILs, one to avert the demolition and the other seeking constitution of the Bihar Urban Arts and Heritage Commission, which was pending since 2012.

The state heritage panel was set up in March this year on the directions of the court. The seven-member Commission, then submitted a report to the HC, claiming, the Collectorate building “did not have much architectural, cultural or aesthetic value” as it was used to “store opium and saltpetre”.

Bharati Kumar, the former head of the history department, asked, “So, by that argument should the Dutch-era part of Patna College be demolished too?” She also countered the Commission’s assessment on architecture of Collectorate, saying, “The Dutch-era Record Room has exquisite pillars, and its thick walls, high ceilings huge doors and windows, hanging skylights, and British-era buildings are also admirable and worth preserving from the architectural point of view”.

Hearing a petition by INTACH, the Supreme Court on September 18 had ordered a stay on the demolition of Patna Collectorate.

The then Dutch envoy Alphonsus Stoelinga, London-based Gandhi Foundation, noted historians and others had also appealed in 2016 to spare the demolition of the landmark, whose fate currently hangs in the balance.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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