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Warli Painting

“Warli art speaks of our way of life, our culture; it reveals the heart of the Warlis.”

Warli for your walls news
Impressed by the Warlis and their way of life, Mary Thomas helps you imbibe techniques of how to embellish your walls with the art of the Warli
20 February 2009

These paintings adorn walls of five-star hotels in Mumbai, tourism buses and offices in Maharashtra making them the icon of Maharashtra tourism. Even T-shirts, coasters, linen with these designs and motifs are considered chic. Many schools take workshops for children. Now what are we talking about? Is it some latest fad? Not really, we are referring to mural style rudimentary paintings that date back to the early 10th century. They are so easy to paint that even a child can master them. They don’t need any great artistic skill either. Some practice of the common symbols is all you need to set the trend rolling on the walls of your home.

Folk arts in India are innumerable, whose custodians are the many tribes that live in the interiors of various states. Warli painting, named after the tribe that evolved it, is one such highly popular art form. The Warli tribals were forest-dwellers who have made a gradual transition towards being a pastoral community in the West coast of Northern Maharashtra. A large concentration is found in the Thane district, off Mumbai. A little backward economically, they still maintain their indigenous customs and traditions.

The name Warli comes from ‘Waral’, which means a piece of land or field, since farming is their main source of livelihood. Their tradition and folklore is passed down through paintings, as the written word is not used for communication. While there are no records of the exact origins of this art, its roots may be traced to as early as the 10th century AD. In her book The Painted World of the Warlis, Yashodhara Dalmia claimed that the Warli are the bearers of a tradition stretching back to 2500 or 3000 BC and theitr mural paintings resemble those done between 500 and 10,000 BC in the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, an archaeological site in Madhya Pradesh where the earliest traces of human life in India were found.

The Warli style of painting evolved from its mural form. Even today, it is a tradition with the Warlis to decorate the mud walls of their huts with paintings made of rice paste. Warli art is done in white on brown or red mud base in simple geometrical shapes. It has gradually diversified into different backgrounds with modern mediums to preserve the paintings. From walls and floor, the Adivasi has graduated to paper and canvas to cater to the market for decorative art, which is highly commercialised.

During festivals or occasions such as harvesting or rituals such as weddings, the Warlis paint their walls. Hamsa Mehta, a self taught warli artist from Ghatkopar Mumbai says, “Nowadays, these paintings are made on paper, usually green or brown, the colour of mud-walls with or without the cow-dung, usually with white paint. The dark background goes to enhance the effect of the white or cream that is painted on it. It can be black, brown, silver on navy blue, golden on dark hues of red or any other combination of light and dark that your imagination can stretch up to.” “The paintings are simple line drawings, mere outlines with little or no detailing. The human figures in a Warli painting are simple, yet stylish — easy even for a child to master,” says Simee Sayal from Art Orbit, Mumbai. Simee who has been painting and teaching warli art and various other art forms says that warli is an art which will never go out of fashion and it holds special fascination for children since it is very simple to paint and geometric. She charges from Rs2,500/- for a 12” X 12” painting onwards.

Their extremely rudimentary wall paintings use a very basic graphic vocabulary: a circle, a triangle and a square. The circle drawn from nature represents the sun and the moon while the triangle is derived from mountains and pointed trees. The square indicates a sacred enclosure, the square, the cauk or caukat (pronounced "chauk" or "chaukat"); for the Palaghata, the mother goddess, symbolising fertility. Significantly, male gods are unusual among the Warli and are frequently related to spirits, which have taken human shape. Scenes portraying hunting, fishing and farming, festivals and dances, trees and animals surround the central motif in these ritual paintings. Human and animal bodies are represented by two triangles joined at the tip, the upper triangle depicting the trunk and the lower triangle the pelvis. Their precarious equilibrium symbolises the balance of the universe, and of the couple, and has the practical and amusing advantage of animating the bodies.

The pared down pictorial language is matched by the rudimentary technique. The walls made of a mixture of branches, earth and cow dung lend a red ochre background for the wall paintings. The white pigment a mixture of rice paste and water with gum for binding is painted on with a bamboo stick chewed at the end. The Warli women called savasini meaning married women whose husbands are alive, paint a chauk or a square on the walls of their kitchen. The paintings, which were the preserve of the womenfolk until the late 1970s took a radical turn when a man, Jivya Soma Mashe started to paint, not for any special ritual, but on regular basis.

The sacred nature of the trees is suggested by their soaring heights in relation to the men and beasts. Dances of spring, of budding trees, of the meeting of lovers, and the poise and abandon form an important repertoire in tribal vocabulary. Nothing is static; the trees, the human figures, the birds challenge and respond to each other, create tensions and resolve them. The art of the Warli people symbolises man's harmony with each other and with nature. These paintings also supposedly invoke powers of the Gods.

The original symbolism of the paintings was (and still is) found in marriage ceremonies, which could not take place until a painting was complete. Warlis call them as Lagnace citra meaning marriage paintings The Warli values the sense of uniformity and the close social interactions with nature and the spirits is what makes the Warlis who they are. For the Warlis, life is an eternal circle. Death is not the end as much as it is a new beginning. Hence circles best represent the art of Warli, which has neither an end nor a beginning.

The purpose of these drawings remain ritual as it did from ancient times, that of projecting and invoking power, virility, protection from unknown diseases, and the dark supernatural forces which have to be kept appeased and satisfied at all times. The paintings pulsate with energy and are a vehicle for the tribal's innermost urges.

Do it yourself
"Warli art is a simple yet vivid expression in the form and figures by people whose lives are tuned closely by the rhythm of nature. What intrigues me is the way a monochrome composition with rudimentary forms can be so appealing," says Shilpa Naresh, Creative head, The Information Co who has effectively adapted Warli style to depict various themes. The simplicity in pattern and style render it easy to replicate. You can easily experiment with vibrant background colours. Warli Art has been adapted in modern form with permanent colours. An embossed effect is achieved by working with a cone. You don’t need any specialised knowledge but a creative mind and artistic flair.

Materials required

* Cloth / handmade paper
* Tracing paper
* Metallic colours (for cloth)
* Poster colours (for paper)
* Distemper (for walls)
* Carbon sheet

Step 1: Choose a design
Step 2: First draw the required pattern on the tracing paper and copy the design into the cloth/paper using carbon sheet.
Step3: If using cloth, paint using metallic colours and let them dry well. Use poster colours for paper
Step4: Draw outlines using the white colour and again leave it to dry for 24 hours.
If applying on cloth, iron on the backside of the cloth.

Tips and tricks

* Experiment with materials. You can even do it on your bed sheets, saris, dresses, cushion covers and curtains.
* Don’t restrain yourself on paper or cloth. Try making a stylish pot, napkin holder, lampshades or just begin … with a bookmark
* First draw the circle and then join them to form a coil with freehand.
* If applying on the wall, use apex as base coat
* Combine figures in beautiful patterns like peacock, well, trees etc.
* Add mirrors or colourful threads, if you want that extra shine to your painting.
* Borders can make it look more attractive
* If using “geru” as your base, mix it with linseed oil so that it stays longer

Traditional looking houses take to warli paintings wonderfully. They even look good on jute bags, serving trays, and can also be used for the base of a clock. While Warli paintings are made in detail, their real beauty lies in their utter simplicity.

Jivya Soma Mashe, the most popular of warli artists, who lives about 150 km from Mumbai says, “Warli art speaks of our way of life, our culture; it reveals the heart of the Warlis.” If you choose, it could be a statement of your lifestyle too.

Special thanks to Razvin Namdarian from bCA galleries persmission to use an interview with the artist Jivya Soma Mashe.

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