Bihar is a land of diversities, contrasts, complexities and assemblage of inter-related units or objects. This becomes evident when one approached it with the considerations of its manifold geographical and physical features, climate and products.
It's multitudinous elements of populations, each with its own traditions, ethics, philosophy, manners and modes of life; its tongue and language with its own forms and phonetics, grammar and vocabularies; its beliefs and practices, and its religions, deeply rooted in the social milieu and woven in the texture of society and culture. The 'Bihari' culture can be divided into four geographical regions, namely- Angika Culture, Bhojpuri Culture, Maithili Culture and Magahi Culture.
However, in general, one who has seen the cultural scene in India in the decades preceding Independence and has been a witness to the resurgence since 1947 is likely to be impressed by certain trends today that were non-existent or latent in the first half of the century.
Like other states of the Indian Union, Bihar, too, has begun to play a vital and active role in promoting cultural forms and in providing opportunities to individual and group talent. One of the main features of the changed environment is a far greater mobility among cultural forms, whether of the performing arts or the fine and plastic arts. While this is applicable to Indian culture in general, it is no less true of Bihar's culture in particular. The Bihari artist, like his counterparts elsewhere in India, has begun to woo his own native folk forms and to protect not only his national heritage but also his national identity. With the advent of Independence and the opportunities he got for the appreciation of musical, dramatic and visual arts, he was filled with a sense of wonder at the bold, spontaneous and haunting beauty that lay un-noticed in rustic homes, village markets and forgotten jungles. Borrowings and adaptations from these are appearing as indicators in a voyage of the rediscovery of neglected selves. A corollary to this is that the distinction between the professional and amateur practitioners of the arts seems to be getting blurred, if not disappearing altogether, at least in some disciplines. That post-independence Bihar has many cultural achievements to its credit that cannot be doubted. Bihar took the lead in establishing the state academy of music, dance and drama even before the National Academy was set up.
Again with cooperation of All-India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, Bihar's own Shilpa Kala Parishad organized exhibitions on the regional festivals, such as the Vaishali festival.
The Bharatiya Nritya Kala Mandir at Patna is a training center, imparting training in the Kathakali style and also in Bharat Natyam.
Another art center is the famous Bindhyabasini Kala Mandir, which has specialized in collecting folk songs from different parts of the state, and imparts training to young girls. Of late, however, there has been a palpable slowing down of the programs of the performing arts.
Painting and handicrafts are still in an excellent form. Bihari craftsmen in general have excelled in terracotta, bamboo-work, seenki-work, kasida, pottery, stone-craft, textiles, etc. Mithila folk painters in particular have brought about a revolution in interior decoration and, may be, also in painting itself.
Though not much can be said about the pre-Aryan culture of Bihar, it is certain that the ancient inhabitants of this region knew the use of stone tools, for quite a number of Paleolithic tools have been discovered at different sites in Bihar, particularly in Munger, Patna and Gaya. The Man riverbed near Bhimbandh, adjacent to the Kharagpur hills in Munger district, has also yielded many Early Stone Age tools. The Paleolithic people, it seems, lived in natural caves and rock shelters on forest-clad hills and mountains, and hunted wild beasts and birds with their Paleolithic implements. Curiously enough, the implements they used resemble those of the Madras region both in form and material. The existence of Mesolithic tools in Bihar discovered in the course of explorations and excavations leaves little doubt that the inhabitants of this region during the Mesolithic age were also under a regular process of cultural development. The find of chips and flakes of flint, chert, etc., has been reported from various places. That these primitive people could make fine tools of stones like chert, chalcedonic, agate, crystal, etc., is amply borne out by modern archaeological excavations and researches. The discovery of geometric tools of different types, of black-and-red ware, of iron, etc., testifies to the fact that Chalcolithic cultures prevailed in Bihar in between 1000 and 700 BC, if not earlier. People made differently types of tools, such as axe, wedge, chisel, shouldered hoe and hammer stone, all bearing testimony to the prevalence of a non-Aryan culture in south Bihar.
The Neolithic and other prehistoric men of Bihar handed down their art tradition to their progeny in the historic period. Many structural relics are still in existence to fill up the gap separating the prehistoric men from their historic descendants. The remains of forts and other monuments at Rajgriha, the old Magadhan capital, though not of much artistic importance today, certainly belong to the pre-Buddhist period, probably to the Mahabharat period when Jarasanha ruled from this place.
The early Mauryan buildings and works of art were mostly wooden, except at Rajgriha, for wood was the basic material of Mauryan architecture. The pillars and fortifications of the ancient city of Pataliputra (500 to 320 B.C.) were all of wood and revealed workmanship of a high order. The absolute perfection of such work and those who executed them would find little indeed to learn in the field of their own art, could they return to earth today. Literary sources, both Sanskrit and Pali, furnish indubitable evidence of the existence of a highly developed art other than sculpture, in pre-Ashokan Magadh. From Greek accounts we learn of cities made of wood, while the celebrated Panini refers to Magadhan traders moving about with their stock of wooden pillars and stone slabs. Chandragupta's palace stood in its entire Mauryan splendor when Megasthenes visited the capital. The Greek ambassador found in the magnificent palace a series of hypostyle halls containing pillars of wood each of which was clasped around with vines embossed in gold and ornamented with designs of birds and foliage in gold and silver, thus excelling in magnificence the famous royal pleasances of Susa and Ecbatana. The city of Pataliputra ranged along the banks of the Ganges like an immense castellated breakwater, surrounded by a stupendous timber palisade, with loopholes for archers and protected externally by a wide and deep moat. At intervals were bastions with towers; over five hundred in number, and it was entered by as many as sixty-four gates. Within the walls was the royal palace, evidently a much more spacious and elaborate edifice than that erected by any previous ruler in the country.
A change in this pattern of architecture occurred when magnificent monuments executed in stone began to appear (322 to 185 B.C.) in Bihar during the Mauryan period itself. Numerous Buddhist texts refer to the existence of stone structures in Bihar during the days of the Buddha. The Parayana Sutta refers to the pashanaka or stone-made Chaitya or Rajgriha, the capital of Magadh. A palace of stone, according to Rhys Davids, is mentioned only once in the Jatakas. The Buddha, however, is said to have allowed his disciples to make use of stone not only in the basements of their halls, stairs, floors and walls, but also in the roofing of their houses.
The ancient Magadhans also knew the use of burnt bricks and of sudha or lime. Houses were provided with pillars, windows and stairs. The Jatakas are full of references to towns, palaces and pavilions, and we know that fortified cities and palaces had a wall around them interspersed with gateways and watchtowers and ditches outside. The cities had well-planned streets, and different classes of people occupied special quarters set apart for them. The walls of the buildings were often decorated with paintings, which included figures of human beings, creepers, flowers, animals and birds, mountains, sea etc.
Buddhist texts also refer to chaityas of different kinds and forms. Of these, Manimala Chaitya of Magadh, Manibhadra Chaitya of Mithila, and the Punabhadra Chaitya of Champa were famous. It was, however, the stupa that formed an important part of the architectural achievement of Mauryan Bihar. The word stupa literally means something raised, a mound, and came to be used as a Buddhist architectural term for a mound, and came to be used as a Buddhist architectural term for a mound containing the relics of the Buddha- his ashes, bones or tooth- or those of the famous Buddhist saints and teachers. Ashoka was the builder of cities, stupas, viharas excavated in hard rocks, rock-cut chaitya-halls, palaces and pillars of stone. These pillars are said to be the masterpieces of Mauryan Art in the shining polish imparted to them, which is the despair of modern masons, and in the degree of perfection in which they were shaped, dressed and decorated in accordance with the Emperor's design. The masons of Magadh delineated the natural forms of animals and plants in stone and reduced and shaped large masses of rocks into pillars, all monolithic productions of considerable weight and height. One simply marvels at the deftness and skill with which these great weights were handled and transported over distances of several hundreds of kilometers to their appointed sites. Such progress, indeed, could not have been achieved in a day; it must have been preceded by a long course of evolution from its origins and crude beginnings in earlier times.
One can trace the beginnings of Indian art to a class of colossal stone statues, which are, to all intents and purposes, pre-Ashokan and pre-Mauryan. These statues represent the folk art of the times and were admittedly inspired by the animistic worship of popular deities known as Yakshas and Yakshinis, Nagas or Nagis, Gandharvas, Apsaras, earth-spirits, water-spirits, etc. Of the eleven examples of these oversized figures of deities discovered so far, two are of Patna Yakshas. The statues made of the buff-coloured sandstone of Chunar quarries and bearing a distinctive metallic polish, have been kept in the Indian museum, Calcutta. One of these is the statue of Bhagawan Akshata-nivika (Kuber), while the other is that of Yaksha Sarvatra Nandi. Ashokan art had its beginnings in these and similar other statues which are representative of popular rural worship and folk-art of the times.
The fairly life-size Yakshini statue discovered by accident at Didarganj, Patna, is in the same tradition and represents the highest watermark of sculptural art in the indigenous tradition. In her right hand the female figure holds a chowry and the lower part of her body is richly covered with ornaments and folded garments. There is nothing archaic or primitive, but a conscious urban beauty that became the prototype of the numerous female figures carved on the railing pillars of the Sunga and Kushan periods. It is an example of the art of the transitional period between the Maurya and Sunga epochs.