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Based in the Thane District, about 150 km north of Mumbai, the Warli tribe numbers over 300,000

members. They have their own beliefs, life and customs which have nothing in common with

Hinduism. The Warli speak an unwritten dialect mingling Sanskrit, Maharati and Gujarati words.

The word « Warli » comes from « warla» which means a piece of land or a field. In his book, The

Painted World of the Warlis, Yashodhara Dalmia claimed that the Warli carry on a tradition

stretching back to 2 500 or 3 000 BC. Their mural paintings are similar to those done between 500

and 10 000 BC in the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka , in Madhya Pradesh.

Their extremely rudimentary wall paintings use a very basic graphic vocabulary: a circle, a triangle

and a square. The circle and triangle come from their observation of nature, the circle representing

the sun and the moon, the triangle derived 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. So the central motive in each ritual painting is the square, the

cauk (or caukat); inside it we find Palaghata, the mother goddess, symbolizing fertility. Significantly,

male gods are unusual among the Warli and are frequently related to spirits which have taken

human shape.

The central motif in these ritual paintings is surrounded by scenes portraying hunting, fishing and

farming, festivals and dances, trees and animals. Human and animal bodies are represented by two

triangles joined at the tip ‹ the upper triangle depicts the trunk and the lower triangle the pelvis. Their

precarious equilibrium symbolizes 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 a rudimentary technique. The ritual paintings are

usually done inside the huts. 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 and water with gum as a binding. They use a bamboo

stick chewed at the end to make it as supple as a paintbrush. The wall paintings are done only for

special occasions such as weddings or harvests. The lack of regular artistic activity explains the very

crude style of their paintings, which were the preserve of the womenfolk until the late 1970s. But in

the 1970s this ritual art took a radical turn. A man, Jivya Soma Mashe started to paint, not for any

special ritual, but on an everyday basis.

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