Warli Art – The Tribal Art Expressing Life through Geometry

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This article by Manisha Sarade

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Table of Content

  •  Introduction

  • Legacy behind the Warli Art

  • The method of Preparation of Warli Art

  • Themes employed and their implications

- Devchauk Motif

- Lagnchauk Motif

- Tarpa Dance Motif

- Human figures

- Gods and Goddess

- Birds and Animals Motifs

- Festival Nagpanchami Motif

- Festival Holi Motif

- Marriage Ceremony Motif

  • The Warli Community – What the Tales speak of the Tribe

  • Warli in Contemporary times

  • Conclusion

“A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” – Michelangelo

There couldn’t be a more comprehensive summing up of the core emotion of Warli art. An art form that is driven by everyday life stories and these tales also in turn become a reminder of traditional values and cultures cherished by the tribe. The Warlis believe that without the ahankaar, there is no kahankar. They have an advanced notion of communication. A story is not just a story, it is the passing of energy from narrator to listener.

Warli painting is a form of tribal mural art created by the tribal people from the North Sahyadri Range in Maharashtra, India. The Warlis or Varlis are an indigenous tribe living in mountainous as well as coastal areas of Maharashtra and Gujarat. They speak an unwritten Varli language which belongs to the southern zone of the Indo-Aryan languages. The Warli Tribesmen and women are traditional storytellers; they follow the oral practice of passing down traditions, knowledge and culture. This oral tradition translates into beautifully painted elaborate tales on the wall of their houses, and other common areas of the community.

These visual canvases capture their daily rhythms in life; the forces of nature they worship, their simplistic belief systems, their laughter, regret, victories and tears. Without even saying a single word, an uncountable world of tales exists on the wall, some depicting everyday activities like fishing, hunting, cooking, harvesting etc, while some others more nuanced- teaching many lessons in life.

Contrary to popular perception, the Warli Paintings of Maharashtra are very different from other tribal and folk paintings in India but similar in many ways with the African Zulu Paintings. Their themes revolve around depiction of daily life activities rather than mythological themes. Unlike Madhubani paintings that use bright colours, these are painted on mud and cow dung-based surface using earth colours or rice paste in white.

Legacy behind the Warli Art

From monochromatic appearance to simple designs and authentic colors, warli paintings have been proved to gain real fame. They are not really colorful, but they depict the scenes from social life of the tribe, rather than religious or mythological characters. They depict different activities such as hunting, harvesting, drawing water, fishing, dancing, etc.

The Warli tribe is one of the largest in India, located outside of Mumbai. Despite being close to one of the largest cities in India, the Warli reject much of contemporary culture. The style of Warli painting was not recognised until the 1970s, even though the tribal style of art is thought to date back as early as 10th century A.D. The Warli culture is centered around the concept of Mother Nature and elements of nature are often focal points depicted in Warli painting. Farming is their main way of life and a large source of food for the tribe. They greatly respect nature and wildlife for the resources that they provide for life. Warli artists use their clay huts as the backdrop for their paintings, similar to how ancient people used cave walls as their canvases.

These paintings seem to be nothing more than Warli figures drawn in whites on rich dark walls to the untrained eye, but a closer inspection shows that Warli is far more than meets the eye. To many, it may seem like just a simple art form of India. Still, the Warli tribes located in mountains and coastal regions in and around Maharashtra and Gujarat's borders are warli painting states. The origin of Warli art can be traced back to around 3000 BC and seems to have an enigmatic appeal to it. Even though the tribal art style dates back to the 10th century A.D., the Warli paintings form was not known until the 1970s. Although the primary way of life and a significant food source for the tribe was farming, they had great respect for nature and wildlife for the resources they provided for life. On various occasions, this type of painting was mainly centred around the concept of mother nature and its elements. Quite often, multiple parts of nature are the focal points that are further accentuated in these paintings. A fascinating fact about Warli artists is that they used their clay huts as the backdrop for their masterpieces, much like how ancient people utilised their cave walls as canvases.

In the 1970s this ritual art took a radical turn, when Jivya Soma Mashe and his son Balu Mashe started to paint, not for any special ritual, but because of his artistic pursuits. “Our history is not written, it is drawn: we tell you stories, we tell you about our life”, said Jivya Soma Mashe. Mashe as the recognised father of modern Warli painting and Ramesh Hengadi as a follower who has developed his own distinctive style in response to the changes in community life and shifts in local and global economies. Hengadi has participated in a series of enter.

Over, the years Warli paintings have evolved drastically. Initially, these beautiful masterpieces were curated on mud walls with a paste of rice and water that was used to paint the characters on the canvas and chewed bamboo sticks were used to act as paintbrushes; since then, warli painting characters came into the picture. But, on the other hand, today the conventional paints and paintbrushes can create an end product just the same. Other than that, Warli paintings are not just restricted to the traditional mud walls anymore. They’ve expanded on a great scale in the home decor industry and seem to be growing day by day. From pots and vases to bedsheets and curtain prints, they are becoming increasingly popular and highly liked. The textile and clothing industry is fond of this beautiful Indian art form, not just the home decor world. These days witnessing a beautiful Warli painting printed saree adorned by women on the street or the fashion show ramp is a common sight that everyone very much likes.

The method of Preparation of Warli paintings

Raw materials used

Earlier warlas used to do the paintings on mud walls of their own houses. In this folk art of painting, design is never traced or drawn. It is a visualisation or creativity of artisan. Design is directly painted on walls with wooden stick. Background of design is earthen colour or reddish colour. House walls are painted with cow dung powder and coating is given with geru powder. White paste is made from rice flour and paste is prepared with water which was used for painting.

Painting Technique Used
  • Design is selected.
  • Without tracing design, it is directly drawn on paper or cloth.
  • Bamboo stick is chewed at the end to make it as supple as a paint brush, is a simple tool used for painting.
  • Motifs are painted with white paste on the walls or earthen pots, on wooden articles or on paper or on cloth.
  • First the body of human figure is drawn by connecting two triangles and hands and legs are depicted in dancing position and then remaining design is accomplished by painting minute details.
  • Cloth is ironed from the reversed side of the cloth.

The attributes characterizing almost in Warli paintings are:

1.    Use of natural and artificial white colour.

2.    A border with simple triangle, squares geometric figures.

3.    Symbols like Sun, Moon, Birds, Trees supporting the main theme.

4.    Abstract-like Human figures, figures of deities and Bride Bridegroom.

5.    The faces of the human figures are circle, body with two triangles and females are identified with protruding curve line symbolising ponytail. Warli painting is an emblematic expression of day-to-day experiences and beliefs. As such, symbolism, simplicity and beauty hold them together in a single school of traditional art.

Colours Used

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 & water with gum as a binding. To create variations geru, Turmeric, Kumkum, leaves, coloured flowers are used to extract natural dyes and gum from trees are extracted. Black colour is extracted from charcoal and used to depict cruel soul, red colour from Butea Monosperma (Palas) flowers used to show existence of God Naradmuni and symbol of departed souls. Kumkum colour is used as symbol of prosperity. Yellow colour is extracted from pineapple.

Themes employed and their implications

During marriages, Diwali festival, holi festival, during the season of crop harvesting and during other rituals, painting is done on warli’s pada with full of enthusiasm and freedom. Their folk dance, daily life routine, Nature, gods and goddess, animals, birds, and such similar themes are mainly used in painting. Through their artistic living culture and movements of human figures, they imply certain meanings. The warli painting essentially depicts the basic principles of life which are used to depict human figures, animal’s figures, houses etc. ‘White colour’ is used on a red earthen background. Warli paintings use a very basic graphic vocabulary; a circle, a triangle & a square and paintings are monosyllabic. The circle and triangle come from their observation of nature, the circle representing the sun and the moon, the triangles come from mountains and pointed trees. Only the square seems to obey a different logic and seems to be a human invention, indicating a sacred enclosure or a piece of land.

Devchauk Motif

The central motif in each ritual painting is the square, known as the “chauk”. Mostly Chauks are of 2 types: - Devchauk & Lagnchauk. This motif is a square motif, drawn during marriage ceremony on walls, which is known as “Devchauk” (God’s square). Inside a devchauk, palaghat, the mother goddess symbolizing fertility is found. This process of drawing square with God is called as “Chauk Lihine”. In the beginning, they just draw a simple line for name of God which is known as “Devregh” (line for God).

Lagnchauk Motif

The lines are drawn on name of bride and bridegroom. In this motif, bride and bridegroom riding horse is depicted in the center of square. This motif is painted mainly by married women by performing rituals. Remaining part of it is painted with various motifs by women from their families and boys and girls with cheerful gestures, a sort of group painting.

Tarpa Dance Motif

Tarpa dance is a folk dance of warli tribe. Tarpa is a musical instrument of the tribe. “Tarpa” is made of dry bottlegourd, bamboo tubes and bamboo sticks, cord and wax. This instrument is beautiful looking and 2 feet to 6 feet in length. This dance is performed in circle by male and females by clasping one another’s hands. Main Dance performer standing in centre plays instrument Tarpa and Females get involved in this performance with free mind. This dance is started at the time of sunset and performed till sunrise of next day. So, sun and moon motifs are seen in this painting. Sometimes boys and girls, they select their dance partner as life partner too through tarpa.

Human figures

The central motif in these ritual paintings is surrounded by scenes portraying, hunting, fishing, & farming, festivals & dance, Human figures are represented by two triangles joined at the tip: the upper triangle depicts the trunk & the lower triangle the pelvis. Circle depicts the face without features like nose, eyes and ears. Males are identified from bunch of hair is shown and females with special hairstyle in circle called “Ambada”.

Gods and Goddess

Circle is considered as symbol of lifecycle. Sun, Moon, Trees, Creepers, birds, things used in day-to-day life, Nature and Gods like vaghya god, Naran god and Panchshirya god motif is used to save family and Himai goddess and Hirwai goddess are mainly symbol of nature, depicted in this painting.

Birds and Animals Motifs

As warlis are farmers, animal motifs like Cows, Bulls, Cocks, Hens, Sheep’s, dogs are used in painting as these are domestic animals. Bird motifs like Peacock, sparrow is seen sometimes snake, frog is also seen. Peacock is a national beautiful bird depicted everywhere in traditional textiles, embroideries and paintings in India. Frogs are depicted for heavy rainfall; Scene of harvesting or farming is shown to grow grains in ample amount and prosperity.

Festival Nagpanchami Motif

Snake motif is painted during special festival of snakes on which day real snakes are worshipped called “Nagpanchami”.

Festival Holi Motif

Holi festival is the New year celebration of Maharashtrian people mainly celebrated in the month of March.

Marriage Ceremony Motif

Marriage is one of the most important themes in warli art. A warli painting on marriage on clearly show their marriage god, Palghat, birds, trees, men & women dancing in circles, various celebration, bride and Bridegroom.

While the reaping season scene is shown by the laborers cutting the crops in the field. On the other hand, modern adaptations in warli art include bicycles & transistors as well apart from flora and fauna. Musicians and agriculture being the traditional one.

The Warli Community – What the Tales speak of the Tribe

Their society is more egalitarian, leaning towards a matriarchy, there are a myriad of stories with feminist undertones. In the Warlis, no woman can be married against her will, nor can she be forced to stay in a marriage. If a couple elopes and spends three days together, when they return to their homes, they can get married irrespective of their family’s wishes. The concept of dowry is reversed and turned into ‘bride price’. One is taking an able-bodied woman away from her family, so the man needs to pay a price for it. Earlier it used to be paddy or rice, now it is clothes or money. Weddings are conducted by a priestess dhaulerin, assisted by a group of suhasins. The importance given to communality is another feature their stories reveal. The idea of owning property or lands did not exist among them before the British rule. Children hunt together, learning from older children. And each child gets equal share of the hunt.

Warli in Contemporary times

With the back-to-the-roots movement taking over every part of our lives, art lovers flaunt the Warli motif with pride. Traditionally, this painting is done on a red ochre background with white paint and these are the only two colours used. But, today, a variety of colours are being used to replicate these artistic motifs on fabrics, home décor or other artistic forms. The first transition of Warli art into the outside world was by means of the change in medium of painting. It began to be made on paper that promised better durability and longevity of the paintings. Sections of the Warli community slowly came in touch with the urban lifestyle. Many of them completely migrated to the mainstream urban culture in pursuit of better livelihoods.

There are some excellent examples of the display of Warli art in public spotlights. An entire colossal wall of the Tony Garnier Urban Museum was painted in an exquisite display of a Warli canvas. In 1993, a Warli artist named Shantaram Chintya Tumbada was approached for this work which was a part of a series of five paintings for depicting the five continents on the walls of the museum. As a result, this massive mural of Warli art is showcased on the museum wall at Lyon in France. In India, Warli artist Rajesh Chaitya Vangad has his works displayed on the walls of Mumbai International Airport and at Homi Bhaba Block of Tata Memorial Hospital in Parel, Mumbai

Of all those who are taking inspiration from this art, the lifestyle sector is the one that is most fascinated by its richness. It would be surprising if such a beautiful art form is missing from the innovations by the fashion industry. Warli art has a charm of being on the lines of intricate village art that could be adapted to linen collections of earthy and neutral colours. While sarees with Warli prints have a unique aesthetic appeal, the fashion walks have witnessed the use of this curious art style on semi dresses, kurtispallazzos and other fashion novelties. The use of Warli art style was also witnessed under the Grassroot label of designer wears by Anita Dongre when she unveiled her collections at Lakme Fashion Week Winter Fest 2015. From brightly coloured umbrellas to coffee mugs and tea cups, rustic wall clocks, accents for walls and stationery — Warli is pretty much everywhere.

In the past, the famed Indian designer Archana Kochhar introduced the indigenous Warli Art at New York Fashion Week (NYFW), as a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India campaign. It demonstrated how figurines in Warli can be captured very beautifully in our fashion with contemporary silhouettes. Hence, from adorning the borders of colourful scarves and kurtis to embellishing the luxurious jute and silk sarees, Warli has taken over the ramp for good.

Today, Warli art has come along a long way to be filtered into present fashion and design creations. Once a simple painting technique of a marginal Indian tribe, the Warli paintings have an international exposure by virtue of talented artists. It is indeed heart-warming to see that an ancient art style which is also an element of the Indian national heritage, continuing to flourish in modern times.

Key Takeaways

  • Warli art is a traditional tribal art form that originated in Maharashtra and is mainly practiced by the Warli tribe.

  • The art form is characterized by its simplicity, use of basic geometric shapes, and white-on-brown color scheme.

  • Warli art mainly depicts everyday rural life, including farming, hunting, and social gatherings.

  • The art form has gained popularity worldwide and has been adapted into various forms, including textiles, murals, and paintings.

  • Warli art is not just an art form but also a means of cultural expression and identity for the Warli tribe, preserving their unique heritage and tradition.

References and Further Readings

1. Dalmia Y. The painted world of Warlis: A tribal worldview. Concent Publishing Company, Bombay, 1988, 22-34.

2. Doshi S. Tribal India Ancestors Gods and spirits. Marg publication, Bombay, 1992, 52-66.

3. Gupta C. Indian Folk and Tribal Paintings. Roli Books, New Delhi, 2008, 36-45.

4. Jain J. Painted Myths of creation, Art and Ritual of Indian tribe. Mapin Publishing, New Delhi, 1984, 10-15.

5. Mookerjee A. Folk art of India. Clarion Books, New Delhi, 1986, 42-55

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