A DOMESTIC RITUAL OF CEREMONIAL BEAUTIFICATION
Abiding at the foot of the Western Ghat Range in Maharashtra, India, is the settlement of an ancient tribe known as the Warli. These are tribal people who survive on forest produce, worship nature and have earned an international name for themselves by virtue of their artistry. What originated as a domestic ritual of ceremonial beautification is now revered as a folk art of immense value. The name of the clan has been extended to the art form and today it is termed ‘Warli Paintings’. Artists and scholars believe the painting style of Warli paintings to have originated some time during the tenth century AD, but considering its simple yet vivid expression in form and figures, this school of painting might even be regarded as following a tradition that originated some time between 2,500 BC and 3,000 BC.
HISTORY AND MODERN APPRECIATION FOR WARLI ART
Based in the Thane District, about 150km north of Mumbai, the Warli tribe numbers over 300,000 members. They have their own beliefs, life and customs. The word ‘Warli’ comes from ‘Warla’ which means a piece of land or a field.
Their extremely simple Warli paintings use very basic graphic forms: a circle, a triangle and a square. The circle and triangle in Warli come from their observation of nature; the circle representing the sun and the moon, the triangle derived from mountains and pointed trees. The square seems to obey a different logic and appears to be a human invention in Warli, indicating a sacred enclosure or a piece of land. The central motif in each ritual Warli painting is the square, the chowk (or chowkat); inside it one finds the mother Goddess, symbolising fertility.
The central motif in these ritual Warli paintings is surrounded by scenes portraying hunting, fishing and farming, festivals and dances, trees and animals.
Human and animal bodies are represented in Warli by two triangles joined at the tip, the upper triangle depicts the trunk and the lower triangle, the pelvis. This unstable equilibrium in Warli symbolises the balance of the universe, and of the couple, and has the practical and amusing advantage of animating the bodies. A head, arms, legs are added to both the forms and the women are distinguished by a bouffant(bun) at the back of their heads.
The simplicity of pictorial Warli language is matched by an equally basic technique. The ritual Warli paintings are done inside the huts. The walls are made of a mixture of branches, earth and cow dung, making a red-ochre background for the wall paintings. The Warli use only white for their paintings. Their white pigment is a mixture of rice paste and water with gum as a binding. The Warli artists use a bamboo stick chewed at the end to make it as supple as a paintbrush. The Warli wall paintings are done only for special occasions such as weddings or harvests. The lack of regular artistic activity in Warli explains the very crude style of their paintings, which were the preserve of the Warli womenfolk until the late 1970s.
Post 1970s this ritual Warli art has attracted attention not only in India but also in international forums and art galleries. Thus, Warli, the fine Indian tribal art has made its way to the world market and has become one of the priced possessions of art galleries and private collectors all across the world. The Warli paintings are unique even in India where art critics are more used to seeing the mythological or sensual depictions so commonly used in Indian-themed art and literature. Modern versions of Warli however, cannot truly be called original unless they are painted on mud by an actual Warli artist. Some Warli artists have translated their work on to paper and fabric, usually using the traditional reddish brown background. It is these translations in the Warli paintings which modern art appreciators have valued highly since the 1970s. It is not unusual for modern Warli art to include elements of modern life since the Warli people embrace these elements as part of their present life. One may therefore see a serene harvest scene with an airplane flying overhead. Jivya Soma Mashe is a famous modern Warli art master and his work has brought him and his people acclaim.
ABOUT WARLI ART
The Warli paintings were discovered by the world as late as the seventh decade of the last century. The Warli art form is simple in comparison to the vibrant paintings from Madhubani. The only colour used in creating Warli paintings is white. Traditionally, Warli people live in mud houses, and to adorn the plain walls, the Warli cover them with murals depicting Warli everyday life and their relationships with their Gods and with nature. “Paint” is manufactured from ground rice flour and traditionally the women created the murals for the home. This combination of mud and flour produces a vivid single colour of white on reddish-brown and has resulted in rich pictures and Warli paintings of various themes and moods.
The Warli paintings tell stories and are a faithful record of folklore passed on in a culture that uses symbolic language. The Warli were not epic writers; rather, they tried to capture the essence of a slice of life in a single scene. Thus in one Warli painting, many story lines may be running concurrently in a complex tapestry of routines, traditions and rituals. The repetition of figures in Warli paintings gives a sense of rhythm and harmony, as well as continuity: The simplicity of Warli art therefore actually represents a passion for the fullness of life.
The themes of Warli art range from everyday agricultural activities to hunting, to interventions by spirits and gods, all unified by a sense of closeness to nature. For the Warli, these relationships have existed for centuries and yet the line between the present and the past is blurred since the Warli believe that these relationships are bound neither by time nor space but exists as an integral part of the culture as a whole. It may seem that the art works in Warli were all done by the same artist due to the consistency in the depictions of people, plants and animals; but this just shows how much the Warli values the sense of uniformity. It is the close social interactions with nature and the spirits which make the Warli who they are.
Warli is an adivasi tribe native to the Thane district in Maharashtra. This Warli tribe has a different culture and though life for them is difficult, they have been blessed by nature. It is in the midst of nature that their culture: “The Warli Culture” flowers, and celebrations of festivals fill their life with hope and excitement. It is these emotions that the Warli express through unique media of painting on the mud-plastered walls of their houses.
The original symbolism of the Warli paintings was (and still is) found in wedding ceremonies and the ceremony could not take place until a painting was complete. These paintings in Warli are called chowks since they show a chowk or square in the middle. Usually chowks also show Palghat, the marriage god. This is why even today, the paintings are considered sacred by the Warli and that they invoke the powers of the Gods.
The Tarpa dance is a speciality of Warli culture and is a harvest dance. The most vivid Warli paintings depict scenarios based on this culture. Tarpas are instruments made from bamboo and seeds of pumpkins and the holes are made so that different notes can be played somewhat like a pipe flute. Girls dance to the Tarpa beat wearing colourful clothes and young boys join alongside. The person playing the Tarpa stands in the middle and is surrounded by the others in a spiral. When the dance reaches a climax the enthusiasm of the Warli tribe also reaches its zenith. This Tarpa Nritya is an area where many Warli paintings have been created. The beat, rhythm and dance are beautifully captured in the Warli painting.
In another way the Warli culture is termed as “rice culture” as rice is a life giver to the tribe. Rice farming is of immense importance in the Warli culture that they use it extensively for their paintings. When the crop is ready, the Warli worship it, and offer rice to the Goddess Kansari on this occasion.
POPULARISATION OF WARLI ART
Sacred or secular, always simple straightforward and full of joy, Warli paintings with their muted colours instantly appealed to scholars and art lovers as their art travelled to cities. And so it was that the Warlis moved on to painting on paper surfaced brown to stimulate the effect pf their wall paintings, creating scaled down versions of the compositions that covered the walls of their homes to convey the essence of their endearing art. As cloth was found to be a more lasting medium, the Warli started painting on cloth surfaced with a thin coat of mud. Further, what was once a woman’s domain has now extended to include men who find it easier to travel for exhibitions. Apart from painting on paper and cloth, Warli artists are also painting on attire, linen, stationery and home decor products for sale at retail stores.
The opening up of the Warli’s world has brought them in contact with contemporary urban life, influencing their life and art. Nowadays, the Warli paintings often blend elements such as trains, railway stations, cars and primary health centres alongside fields and forests. They have also occasionally created black and dark blue backgrounds for these Warli paintings. Added to these factors, Warli artists are also being encouraged to paint their personal thoughts, such as a dream sequence within the traditional Warli expression.
The Tribal Research and Training institute, Pune trains the tribes of the Maharashtra state, including the Warli, and has a museum exhibiting their crafts. The Institute of Development Educational Activities and Studies (IDEAS) an NGO in Pune, has also implemented training programs, facilitated documentation, prepared training manuals, organised exhibitions for the tribes as well as started Kalanidhi, a retail outlet of very reasonably priced tribal arts and crafts. These initiatives have supported the Warli tribes economically, preserved their traditional skills, nurtured their activities, helped them interact with the urban world, fostered solidarity among themselves and specially supported the women, as majority of the artists continue to be women who have to divide their time between daily chores and painting.
Contact with the outside world has already improved the quality of the life of the Warli artists, in terms of health care, better housing and income. As Warli artists adapt to the needs of the market, their works convey the essence of their simple, natural paintings that are truly the stamp of an ancient tradition and their inherent skills.
The Warli use paintings to express the happiness that they feel at various festivals like Dussehra, Diwali and Navratri and ceremonies like marriages. Painting is a distinct part of the Warli life. Warli art innocently reflects the Warli life and is very communicative and alive. The lines in Warli pictures depict the binding between human beings and nature and show the mood of the artist. The symbolic and imagistic pictures drawn by the Warli can be perceived more as a way of life, rather than an expression of emotion. During festivals, the Warli women compete with each other to decorate the walls of their houses with great enthusiasm. The pictures of Gods and Goddesses are believed to protect from evil spirits .
Here’s the Gallery to my work on a WARLI WALL MURAL