The Warlis – Looking Back and Moving Ahead

The states of Maharashtra and Gujarat in the western region of India, is home to an ancient tribe who have survived and evolved into a semi-modern indigenous group. The Warli, known world over for their art work, prefer to keep a low profile as they try to adapt and accept a lifestyle unlike their core beliefs and traditions.

Most Warlis are found to be living in the areas of Dahanu, Palghar and Vangaon which are in close proximity to Mumbai – a modern, fast paced metropolis.

Animism (nature worshippers) is a way of life and they believe in coexisting with nature. Although a heavy urban influence threatens this belief and balance, especially with the new generation.

In addition, their animistic beliefs have been diluted with the introduction and acceptance of the Hindu religion. Their current practices are now an amalgamation of both these beliefs.

On a chilly Sunday morning, my curiosity to know more about them, took me, on a two-hour train ride to Vangaon. I was attending a Warli awareness workshop lead by Sanjay Prahad.

An award winning and internationally recognized Warli artist, Sanjay is an expert on Warli history, culture and art.

His home doubles up as an art studio, where his works are on display. Sanjay started by giving us a tour of his property. An immaculate house, with red ochre paint on the walls and cow dung paste on the floor greeted us. The roof has clay tiles and bamboo columns to support the house. His is a traditional Warli home, where local and natural materials have been used.

Vegetables and grains are grown by the family in the fields adjacent to the house. Cows and chickens are raised for the milk and eggs and goats for the meat.

Sanjay’s wife proudly showed off her grain storage. It was a huge bamboo-weave basket filled with rice harvested from the fields.

The walls of Sanjay’s home are adorned with Warli murals and paintings. He spoke about each one of them as a proud parent.

Warli paintings were originally the domain of married women known as ‘Savasini’. Today it is the men who have taken over. Perhaps, the men would not have been comfortable with their women interacting with the outside world.

The Savasini in action. A warli woman’s traditional attire is a blouse with the saree wrapped around the waist. Flowers adorn the hair. Pic credit – MP Tribal Museum, Bhopal

Scenes from daily life – People working in the fields, women with children, hunting scenes, and wedding images are painted. The symbols used are geometric shapes – triangles for the bodies, circles for the head and sticks for the hands and legs. The inspiration is from the sun, moon, mountains and trees. Paintings that have the square or ‘chauk’ in the center symbolize fertility.

An initial impression seems as if it is a rudimentary form of art. However, these stick figure drawings are similar to the rock paintings found in the caves of the evolving humans. They give us an insight into how ancient this art form really is. There was no written language, so this practice could have been used to communicate and leave messages for the coming generations.

The Warli style of paintings could have its origins from such cave dwellers. For reference I have inserted the rock paintings of Bhimbetka.

Read more about rock paintings of Bhimbetka – HERE

The background of the painting is typically painted in red ochre. The colour is derived from ‘geru’ a locally available mud that is naturally brownish red in colour. Cow dung is also used as a backdrop.

The paint is always white, made with rice powder paste, natural resin and water. A thin slit from the bamboo stick is chewed at the end to make the brush.

Most of the art depicts a circular formation imitating the circle of life. A ‘tarpa’ is mostly found at the centre of the circle. It is a musical instrument made from bamboo. The tarpa is used during festivals and celebrations and is similar to a trumpet.

During a celebration, the men and women move around in circles, and the tarpa player is in the centre. This form of dance is popularly known as the Tarpa Dance.

When a wedding is fixed, married women paint an entire wall of the house with the details of the bride, groom, date and traditional wedding scenes. They like to call it the wedding invitation card, an innovative wedding invite. The nuptials are a mix of traditional tribal practices and Hindu ceremonies.

Sanjay teaches us how to paint using the traditional warli lines and curves.

These wall paintings were created by a local artist at Umaria railway station near Bandavgarh, Madhya Pradesh.

Warli art today, is widely practiced by many non warlis. They use technology and social media to promote their work. Sadly, the real warli artists are undiscovered and unknown as they are trying to catch up with these popular means of promotion.

The Warli culture does not believe in gender discrimination, or between married or widowed women. Their artwork is registered with a Geographical Indication under the intellectual property rights act.

As Warlis strive to maintain a balancing act between the traditional and modern way of life, time will reveal if the scales tilt or balance.

Travel Essentials

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Covid Advisory – Please check local government regulations before planning your travel. Stay safe.

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The fun way is to take a Mumbai local train going to Dahanu. Get off at Vangaon railway station and hire an auto rickshaw to Sanjay’s house. They know him 🙂

Recommended – This workshop was organized by Swadesee. This makes for an interesting day trip from Mumbai and a fun way to get to know the Warlis – https://swadesee.com/warli-tribe-art-village-experience

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