Friday, June 01, 2007

Finding Warli where it belongs

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 carv
ings 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.


Anonymous said...

Long time ago I had googled on warli paintings and I read that a french agent was scouting for
Warli paintings to be sold. My heart was in my mouth - I have met some of these tribes myself in Vasai in the mid nineties - it was a field trip - the communities were they stayed had a sense of art to it. Very poor - they looked upon their art to relieve themselves of the hardships they go through - Exploited as slaves their art was their solace, I infered. Their community was their soul. The brown, black and the white magic belong to the warlis - I hope they patented it. Because now the designers are buzy aping them - I cannot afford their painting - but I am sure one day a wall paper will turn up and I will have a warli wall in my place.

CanisLupus said...

I wonder when Warli paintings became "fashionable" to be in drawing rooms, when they look gorgeous and appropriate in their correct setting. i.e on the walls of the homes of the people who make it. One of the reasons why Warli is enchanting is due to its ephemeral nature, since they use traditional materials for color, background and "canvas" and these deteriorate over time.

I guess its ok to have Warli on the wall, if it depicts the life of the ownner in Warli "style". This will at least show the owner has used some intelligence and understood the art form. Aah, why do i have such wishes ? ;)

Anonymous said...

I have either never seen these paintaings or I never paid attention to it.

But it was interesting to know about them and I would surely notice them in future. :)

Your blog has become source of information on Mumbai for me. :)

Keep writing, finding ...

Maryam in Marrakesh said...

that's amazing. love it.

Anonymous said...

really good atcully i wanted info on warli painting its a good site thankzzzzzz

Anonymous said...

i have to do a project in college about warlis and this info has helped me a lot!!!
i myself am very interested in warli paintings as they are so simple and yet look very beautiful!!!

MedhaOnline said...

I agree with almost everything that everyone has said here. When I visited India after a gap of 4 years, I found that Warli had become really fashionable, I even bought a bed spread and the trays. I am an artist and it intrigued me. I copied the work from the tray in order to understand the grammar. Then I painted one of my own, staying true to the "gerua" color, the real terracotta of the background, and the white figures and objects. One piece led to another, and I got tired of the same ole same ole colors and subjects. I began experimenting with colors and subjects staying loosely within the grammar of Warli art. Many of my pieces have sold, and even repeats. I always hang a write-up about the Warli tribe and the art where I draw my inspiration from.
I often worried about "exploiting" Warli art, the same way as I get upset when someone "loosely" copies my art. Seeing photos of Jivya Somya Malshe and other artists drove me to tears. But at the same time drawing Warli style gave me tremendous pleasure and I must admit the fact that they were being sold too.
A good friend even commissioned three pieces with Diwali, Garba and Pongal as the subjects.
Ironically enough, after two years of being a Warli artist in the US, I saw the 'real' Warli art on that same house near Kanheri caves shown here.
My suggestion is that we have to be proud and happy for the Warlis that this art has got worldwide renown, and do our bit to buy the originals whenever possible so that we can help.
Medha Karandikar

MedhaOnline said...

Folks, I would love to hear your comments on my comment

sanjay raman sinha said...

i am doing a documentary on warli tribe and would like to locate fashion designers/boutiques/artefact stores which stock and work on warli art styles

MedhaOnline said...

Hello Sanjay
Please contact me at
I do work in Warli style, with my own themes and colors