Bihar has one of the longest art traditions in the country. The University of Nalanda was renowned not only for its disciplines of Humanities and the Sciences but also for its artistic tradition. The sculptures of that period are noted for their serenity, grace and flowing lines. The city of Patliputra was one of the great metropolitan centre of the ancient world and its kings and nobles offered patronage to a variety of arts.
In Bihar, embroidery is also done by women as a home craft. It is done on borders of saris, cholis and other articles of clothing and decoration. Chain stitch is very popular, followed by the Bharat which is akin to the Bagh of the Punjab, the stitch following the warp and the weft. The chain stitch is done along with applique on pieces of cloth, lace and tapes. A variation of the Bharat is one in which the outline is made by a double running stitch in black, the body being filled in with colour in long and short stitch.
The sujanis of Bihar are similar to the kanthas of Bengal. They are also made of old materials and embroidered with the thread unpicked from borders of sarees and dhotis and are made exclusively by women. However, they differ in technique. They are more strongly folk in execution the filling-in of the motifs is done with blocks of running stitch worked in straight lines rather than the spiral and whorls and cones of Bengal. The outlines of the motifs are usually worked in herringbone stitch in dark colors.
Applique is a great favourite and is done in two ways. Different patterns may be cut into a single piece of material which is to be attached to the ground material. This is known as Khatwa and is similar to fretwork. In the other style motifs are cut out individually and then attached to the ground material in different compositions. A mixture of different textured fabrics enhances the richness of the design and produces a chiaroscuro effect of light and shade. As in the rest of India this applique is used mostly for tents, shamianas and kanats which are so popular for occasions which call for a large gathering of people. The tradition started in the days when journeys were long and time consuming. Cities of tents grew up every evening in different places when a King or nobleman embarked on a journey. The tents were of different sizes and served as bedrooms, reception rooms, offices, etc. An army on the move required even more accommodation and so the making and decoration of tents became an art in itself.
One of the folk arts of Bihar that has captured the imagination of the world is the mural painting done in Madhubani. An essentially transient art, being executed on the mud-plaster walls of small houses and renewed for each festive season, the art has been given permanence by persuading women to produce them in gouache on paper. Brightly coloured earth and vegetable dyes are used along with lamp-black to produce paintings of a startling vividness. They can be of the narrative type but are mostly depictions of deities and their symbols, scenes of everyday life and motifs from nature. The bridal chamber is beautifully decorated with symbols of fertility and during festivals the special deity connected with the occasion is depicted in various manifestations. The brushes are cotton wool or rags tied to twigs, the outlines being made by twigs frayed at one end. The work is done by women and a small girl learning to paint so that by the time she is grown up she has fully mastered the art.