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Exploring Warli Art from Maharashtra - Origins and Contemporary Uses
Exploring Warli Art from Maharashtra - Origins and Contemporary Uses
31 st Mar 2017

Folk and tribal culture finds itself in a special niche among the varieties of artistic creations that exist in India and Warli art is one such tribal art belonging to this category. To understand why such paintings existed and are still preserved today, it would be interesting to note that the genesis of human communication began with hieroglyphs rather than the sets of alphabet one is acquainted with in most present day languages.

Tribal art resonates with human instincts of communication through some coded language in its elementary forms. Today, these graphical lexicons are better off being characterised as art forms and paintings. However, Warli art is painting in the truest sense but the tribal communities spoke a great deal about themselves through these rather than using them for purely aesthetic purposes.

The History of Warli Art

Warli art originates from the Warli Tribe hailing from the state of Maharashtra in India. The term Warli is derived from ‘warla’ or ‘varla’ meaning a piece of land. Originally hunters, the Warli Tribe later settled down as tenders of agricultural lands.

The early traces of this art are found to be around 10th century AD, however, research suggests that this art form is more primaeval than what it is believed to be. It possibly dates back prior to 2500 BC in the Neolithic age. Furthermore, Warli paintings bear the characteristics of simplified depictions of life and nature that is common among early cave paintings by humans. It draws resemblance to the cave murals in the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters by early humans of the Indian subcontinent.     

Characteristics of Warli Art

Warli art is composed of simplified and elementary graphic constructs. They use basic geometric shapes for depicting usual symbols of life and the world around them. Humans in Warli art would be represented by ‘stick’ figures or triangles reflecting the basic anatomy. However, the art form revolves around the use of rudimentary shapes which they incorporate in visual storytelling. Three basic shapes that are rampant in use are—the circle, the triangle and the square. Rarely would a Warli painting be composed of straight lines; even if it does it mostly occurs in the form of dots and dashes. Another interesting thing about these is the absence of mythological or religious figures.

The theme of Warli art encompasses social life, nature, death, birth and fertility. A common depiction involves circular patterns without any beginning or an end; possibly hinting at eternal life after death. The basic shapes are used for depicting the obvious. Like, circles would mean the sun, moon or any other natural element that could be closely related to the shape. Similarly, triangles are used for trees and mountains. Squares are used for enclosed lands or sacred symbols. Often the Mother Goddess is depicted within square motifs. Originally these paintings were made on the walls of the huts of the tribal people. It was the women who made the paintings. They used white paint prepared from rice powder. The paints were made sticky by adding a natural binder. Bamboo sticks were used as brushes. The paint was applied on walls that were made of red, brown or ochre mud. The result was a distinctive art form which was beautiful with an indigenous rawness.                                                                                

The Mother Goddess inside square motif       Warli painting on village walls

The Popularity of Warli Art at Present

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.

Artist Jivya Soma Mashe is credited for bringing the art on the international platform. Today the beautiful tribal art is found to be replicated on a variety of media. The two-dimensional paintings are now found on cloth murals, canvases, pottery and decorative handicraft items. Widespread commercialization has found its application on everyday items from daily tees, mugs, coasters, and bags to even phone cases!

            Mugs with Warli prints              Innovating Pottery

Prints on everyday use items       

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.

                                     Warli art on the wall of Tony Garnier Museum in France

Inspirations for Fashion Designers

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, kurtis, pallazzos 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.

                   Designer dresses flaunting the Warli art   

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 heartwarming to see that an ancient art style which is also our national heritage, continuing to flourish in modern times. This would be actually the right treatment for the likes of Warli art, to be preserved and continued in present times while exploring the opportunities for its diverse adaptations.


Image sources: RedPatang, Pinterest, Craftconnexions, Madanyu, Engrave


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