Vidya Bhushan Mahto holds a bunch of 150-odd keys to different doors in the five majestic buildings at Patna Collectorate. Besides doors, these keys also unlock a 250-year-old history dating back to the Dutch rule. A fourth grade staff at Patna Collectorate, Mahto, is among several staffers who now want to know if the buildings, built in Dutch and British architectural styles, face a demolition threat.
Several offices have been shifted out of the buildings in the past one year. After the state government decided to raze Patna Collectorate in February 2016, the civil society and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) opposed the move. Also, the then Dutch ambassador Alphonsus Stoelinga wrote to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, urging him to preserve the “shared heritage”.
The structure is associated with the Oscar-winning film Gandhi. In one scene, Mahatma Gandhi refuses to pay Rs 100 as fine to the court for allegedly disturbing peace and the judge still grants him bail. Gandhi walks out of the courtroom and waves to the crowd from the first-floor verandah. That scene was shot in what is now the DM office hall. The front building, a structure with big pillars, was shown as Motihari jail in the film.
Arvind Mandal (57), who has been selling tea at the collectorate since 1968, recalled that when artificial rain was used during the shooting, the film crew would give umbrellas to the people gathered to watch.
Even though there was no move to raze the buildings following the uproar in 2016, the Patna administration kept shifting offices to other locations. When a signboard of “New Patna Collectorate” came up on the premises in 2018, apprehensions of an impending demolition loomed large. After meetings with government officials did not yield results, INTACH filed two PILs in August 2019. While the state government told the Patna High Court that the building was neither a protected ASI monument nor on the list of state’s ancient buildings to be preserved, INTACH argued that it was only because the state government never pushed for its inclusion. The High Court will hear the matter on March 18.
The collectorate building was built by Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, also known as Dutch East India Company. It used as an observation stations during the Great Trigonometrical Survey, a landmark project of the 19th century that aimed to measure the entire Indian subcontinent with scientific precision.
The British got the trading post of Patna after the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of March 17, 1824. Earlier in 1620, the collectorate area had been under control of Dutch. It later went to the British and again returned to Dutch till the treaty finally gave control to the British.
The old collectorate buildings previously housed Court of Appeal and from late 1850s, it has been serving as the Patna Collectorate. Out of the five buildings, two are in Dutch architectural style, one is in Anglo-Dutch and two English.
The Dutch-era record room has high ceilings and majestic colonnade of Tuscan pillars in the facade and eight pillars inside. This is the oldest building of the complex. The Old District Engineer’s Office building is also from the Dutch-era and has high ceilings and hanging skylights.
The DM Office building and the 1938-built District Board Patna building are of the British period. The meeting hall of the District Board Patna building has iconic flat Corinthian columns on its inside. The hall is surrounded by a circumambulating corridor. The ceiling of the hall was removed in 2018 after leakage. But its walls still look sturdy. Several employees working here say there is no need to demolish and reconstruct the building and a proper restoration would be enough.
Kunal Dutt, an independent researcher who has been associated with the campaign against the planned demolition, said, “Patna Collectorate with its rich history can be preserved and augmented as a part of Gandhi Circuit with Gandhi Maidan, Gandhi Sangrahalay, Bapu Sabhagar and Khadi Mall in a 1 km range. An Oscar corner could be developed in front of the building where the Gandhi film scene was shot.”
INTACH’s Patna chapter convenor JK Lall said the Dutch history was “being presented in a non-serious way, labelling it just as a warehouse and a godown of opium to justify its razing”.
Opium was the main traded commodity in Patna, a key port city in those days. Hence, the collectorate was an important part of the layers of the city’s history and the evolution of riverine trade.
The two PILs filed by INTACH, which were later clubbed, the petitioner requests the court to direct state authorities to constitute a “Bihar Urban Arts and Heritage Commission” as per Section 77 of the Bihar Urban Planning and Development Act, 2012. The second petition requests the court to direct authorities to earmark heritage buildings in the state and frame policies for their conservation and protection. The government has not refused to constitute the commission and has stated that necessary notification would be issued soon after the approval of competent authority.
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