Saturday, February 14, 2009

Craft from Bihar

One of the oldest seats of learning in the world is here. So is the place where Buddha gained enlightenment. It is the cradle of two of India’s powerful dynasties, the Mauryan and the Gupta, as well as the birthplace of the king among kings, Ashoka the Great—whose ideals dating back to the BC epoch reverberate in the Indian Constitution. This is the region where Mahatma Gandhi began his non-violent struggle against the British regime by staging the first satyagraha in support of the indigo farmers of Champaran. It’s a land rich in minerals and natural resources. A province with vibrant folk art and culture… If that’s arresting enough be prepared to be intrigued further, as the spotlight is on the state of Bihar.

Every state in India has an exceptionally rich handicraft and handloom tradition and Bihar is no different. For so long has it been plagued by a trail of troubles that its artistic attributes have been pushed into the background. As the dust is wiped away what emerges is a treasure trove of inheritance pursued by creative hands and minds.


Sikki is a common riverside reed found in abundance across the northern Gangetic plains. A plant of high tensile strength, people down the ages have creatively used it to mould items of daily use. The coarse reed is dried in the sun till it turns supple and glossy golden. Its strands are then secured into a rope which is coiled into various shapes, ranging from boxes, animals, pencil holders, planters, serving-bowl casings etc. The natural-hued products are further bedecked with colourful dyed strands that are woven into arresting geometrical patterns, converting ordinary grass into a piece of art.

Sujuni (or soojini)

This form of embroidery, which is simple running stitch, is currently making waves globally enthusing fashionistas and folk art collectors alike. Nowadays done on a single fabric and found on bedspreads, wall hangings cushion/bolster covers and also on apparel like saris, dupattas, stoles, jackets and skirts, traditionally women stitched together layers of muslin cloth and decorated it with motifs transforming it into a quilt or mat for home use. Similar in appearance to the kantha of Bengal the subtle difference lies in the colour scheme and motifs. Sujuni is always on a cream base fabric and it’s only village life that’s portrayed through embroidered motifs, which are outlined in black chain-stitch with the inner detailing being in colour.

Madhubani paintings

The Madhubani style of art is Bihar’s most famous export. Its origins lies in vibrant wall paintings, by women of Madhuban village in Mithila region, depicting gods-goddesses, usually Shiva-Parvati, rural sequences and social celebrations. The paintings were always bordered by floral patterns. Demands of modern times have replaced the canvas of mud-plastered wall with handmade paper, tussar silk and cotton fabric. Madhubani motifs are available as wall frames for as little as Rs 100 or can be flaunted on sarees, bags, office folders etc.


If you are attending a Bihari marriage, notice the hands of the bride; they would be adorned with red or turmeric-coloured bangles that have been embellished with sequins and mirrors. Ritualistically worn for a year or forty days, these are made with lac, a resin found in the forests of the region. Lac bangle-making is a cottage industry that churns out conventional and myriad contemporary designs in a collection of colours. A pair can begin at Rs 20 and go up to Rs 1,000 for a set of 12. Another attractive range of items are painted woodenware varnished with lacquer and this includes toys, beds, stools, keychains, bowls etc besides a traditional wedding item called the kiya or sindoora, which is a lacquer-finished red wooden vermillion box shaped like a temple spire.

Papier Maiche

According to legend, the art of papier machie took root in Bihar for the purpose of crafting mukhota or masks used in the popular Chhau folkdance. The masks have given way to a surfeit of brightly-painted products with folkish designs tailored for modern day including a choice of toys and games. These are hot sellers at handicraft fairs and light up whichever corner they are placed in.

Tussar silk

At handloom fairs the ‘Bhagalpur silk’ stall is ubiquitous. The district is amongst the largest producers of tussar silk in the country and is known for the fine quality of its handspun fabric. Fast movers like silk stoles, sarees, dupattas in addition to yardage can be found in quite a few natural shades of cream, beige and brown as well as in dyed colours.

Nalanda weaves

Originating in looms of Nalanda, the typical weave of an elephant or duck motif panel on red or lilac handspun cotton fabric, caught the fancy of people a few decades back and continues to reign. Also called BCI or Bihar Cottage Industry pattern it’s immensely popular as a chaadar or bedcover, curtain and tablecloth.


The blackish-green stone found in abundance around Bodh Gaya has lead to a stone carving industry. Figures of Lord Buddha and Ganesha have the highest demand among tourists besides which a host of tableware items like coasters, stem glasses, platters and decorative bric-a-brac in glossy finish grab eyeballs.


Every region has a terracotta tradition. In Bihar it dates back to the Mauryan period when potters shaped utility items for personal use and as barter currency. Over centuries the designs have altered to suit d├ęcor needs with pots, pans and toys sharing space with assorted bric-a-brac. A distinctive product is terracotta jewellery that’s been a rage since a few years.

Published in Jetwings, December 2008

No comments: