It is impossible to miss Warli art in Mumbai. You walk into any gift store, and you'll easily spot the animated white stick-figures on tea coasters, trays, boxes and paintings.
As art forms go, Warli is pretty old. Yashodara Dalmia, in her book The Painted World of the Warlis suggests that Warli represents a continuous art tradition stretching back to 2500 or 3000 BC.
That sounds plausible. If you check out the rock carvings at Bhimbetka, in Madhya Pradesh, you'll see the similarity to Warli. The Bhimbetka caves have had continuous occupation from Paleolithic times, and the art dates from the Mesolithic period (10,000 years ago) to medieval times.
I was shopping recently with an overseas visitor, when we spotted a typical Warli painting, neatly framed. "You mean this is traditional art?", he said. "It looks almost contemporary, very stylish!" And I thought to myself, perhaps that's what folk art is all about, perhaps it is timeless in some sense.
In Bombay's fancy gift stores, Warli art has been transformed into something fashionable. But this week, on my way to Mumbai's Kanheri Caves, I was very pleased to Warli art in its natural setting for the first time - on the walls of a mud house. The house was 'adobe' style, a mud hut, but with a tiled roof. The men of the household were on the roof, repairing it before the monsoon set in.
Here is a closer look at one section of the painting:
The entire village seems to be illustrated in it - dogs, cats, cows, women, men, houses, the village well. Notice how everyone is busy - drawing water, sweeping, tending cattle, cooking, carrying things. In fact, when I saw the painting it was like seeing the sleepy village come alive. My favourite bit though, are the village hens, check them out! I suspect one of them is the rooster, and the rest his harem!
The name JAG is written on the wall in both English and Marathi, obviously it is the name of the painter. I can't tell whether that's a male name or a female one...Warli is traditionally a woman's art though. Warli paintings are typically done before weddings, to seek the blessings of the goddess. So perhaps they had a wedding in the family recently.
If you want to see Warli painting in progress, or the inside of a Warli home, you simply shouldn't miss Dr. Stephen Huyler's wonderful collection of photos on his Painted Prayers website.