decoding the Warli paintings of sahyadri

Trujetter Team

, Heritage

Most of our Indian tribal and folk art forms carry high socio-religious significance. They are made of unique concepts and it is important to identify the aesthetic purpose of these art forms that herald our heritage.

Many walls and pillars in the posh areas of the cities of Mumbai and Nagpur have been painted in a new palette. One of the art forms that can be seen in abundance is Warli paintings. This decorated art form gets its name from the indigenous tribes, Warli who hail from North Sahyadri mountain range of Maharashtra in India. Dahanu and the Talasari Taluka of Thane district are often associated with their high concentration. Most of them have been living in the Sahyadri Hills, north of Western Ghats. Easily recognisable for its stick figures, basic geometric patterns like dots, circles and triangles, these rudimentary wall paintings have had their own struggles before making its way in our life. While some say that the visual world of Warli could have originated in 2500 BC, others claim it from 10th century AD. All said and done, this decorative art form of India was recognised as a tribal art only in 1970.

Meaningful elements

The grammar and rules of Warli art is as simple as it could be. It is believed that the art demonstrates life just the way the early practitioners (Warli tribes) used to see and experience it. For decades, this art form has been using only two basic and earthy colours – mud colour and white. Originally, a mixture of cow dung and red mud was used to make the huts and this was used as the background for the art. The figurines and their humdrum were painted in white colour, which was created using white pigment made from a mixture of rice paste and water and gum as a binder. The characteristic style of the art originated when the tribes started to paint the walls of their village huts during weddings, festivals and harvest season.

Soon the vivid expressions took the form of their daily routine, rituals, festivals, common practices, realism and more. The Warli tribes showed immense love and respect towards nature and it is evident from the shapes used in their paintings. No doubt, the art seems to have evolved from their love and closeness for smallest plant or creature. In fact, some of the most primitive shapes are the focal points of the whole art work. The sun and moon gave way to circular formations and it is believed that the idea of triangles must have been derived from mountains and conical trees. The square or the ‘chauk’ in the centre symbolises fertility of the woman. The way the tribals painted these figurines on the walls of the huts is often compared as to how primitive men carved figures on cave walls. The hourglass bodies of humans made through triangles is the most noticeable and vibrant element of their ideation. A big head represents a man while a bigger lower section and a bun on top represents a woman.

As you delve into these paintings with greater interest, you tend to realise that Warli art is not about humans or nature in exclusivity, it is about a whole society living in harmony. Many elements like plants, trees, god, goddess, men, women, fishing, harvesting and their daily activities were created to put together a concrete picture.

Circular patterns

Entwined hands, closeness with one another, a circular pattern, open-ended circles or the dancing spirals occupy the most prominent place in the Warli pictograph. This is said to be the tarpa dance where men and women form a circle and

rejoice their festive moments around the tarpa player. These circular formations have caught interest of art lovers since ages and thus it has found many interpretations too. In the first attempt, it is easy to predict that it depicts the tribal dances performed during festivals and weddings but the deeper meanings hint at the never ending cycle of life. In many ways, it also strengthens the belief that death is not the end. Lastly, it inspires us all to live in harmony with nature and  ourselves without letting the joy end.

One can easily see through the expressions and encapsulate the important messages conveyed through the paintings. The three most important phases of human life – birth (life), marriage and death – are depicted through circular patterns in the most elementary and effortless way.

Revival of the art Such art forms which are counted to be similar to those from Neolithic period have much to say about our heritage. Thanks to the efforts of artists like Jivya Soma Mashe (an artist from Maharashtra) and others, who not only revived it but also gave it a rebirth in its contemporary form. Due to efforts of many, late 70s saw a change in the world of Warli paintings. Now, Warli paintings on paper have become very popular in India and abroad.

Warli Art is not only registered with a geographical indication, it has found its way into wall art, home décor accents, cloth murals, canvases, pottery and decorative handicraft items apparel, accessories and more. Art forms like Warli need to make their way back into our society not just to keep us connected with our roots but to inspire us to live in harmony.

Words: Manjulika Pramod

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