Warli Painting: Ebullient Image of Everlasting Happiness

Artwork by: Swati Srivatava

Celebrating the miracle of Mother Nature with the ebullience of everlasting happiness, the Warli paintings are the expressions of contentment experienced in harmony with nature. Expressing the profound truth of life and the philosophy of existence simply, these ritual paintings project all that one needs to know to live a happy life.


Painted on austere mud walls by the women of Warli tribe, the painting brings out the vast and magical world of the Warlis. An indigenous tribe living in the Thane district of Maharashtra, Warlis are one of the largest tribes in India. Largely concentrated in the tehsil of Dahanu and Talasari, the tribe originally belongs to the Daman territory and over the years have migrated towards the south. Despite being close to the northern outskirts of Mumbai, the Warils rejects all the influences of modern urbanization.


The expression “Warli” is derived from the word “varal” meaning a small patch of cultivated land. Warlis themselves assert that they are called “Warlis” since they used to spread brushwood, also known as ‘varal’ on land being prepared for agriculture. The Warli people speak an unwritten Warli language which belongs to the southern zone of Indo Aryan languages formed by the combination of Sanskrit, Marathi and Gujarati words.


The Warlis used their paintings as a means of transmitting their folklore to a generation not acquainted with the written word. Taking its name from the Warli tribe, the Warli painting is a part of their religion and culture. Close to pre-historic cave painting in execution, the Warli painting depicts the scenes of human figures engaged in activities like hunting, dancing, sowing, and harvesting.


The themes of Warli paintings are highly repetitive and symbolic. It has different subjects depicting the day to day life of the Warlis. The paintings are usually based on different occasions celebrated by the tribe such as birth, deaths, marriages, and harvest. Since nature plays an important role in the Warli lifestyle, their art also contains natural subjects such as sun, moon, rain, wind, and thunder.


Another common pattern in Warli art is the use of rudimentary graphic vocabulary i.e. circles, triangles, and squares. These shapes are symbolic of different elements of nature. The circle represents the sun and the moon, while the triangle is derived from mountains and pointed trees. In contrast, the square is a human invention, it depicts a sacred enclosure or a piece of land. Therefore, the central motif in each ritual painting is the square, the ‘Cauk’ or ‘Caukat’. They are mostly of two types ‘Devachauk’ and ‘Lagnachauk’. Inside a ‘Devachauk’ is usually a depiction of ‘Palaghat’, the Mother Goddess, symbolizing fertility.


One of the central aspects depicted in many Warli paintings is the Tarpa dance. The tarpa, a trumpet-like instrument, is played in turns by different village man and men and women move in a circle around the tarpa player. The circle with no end or beginning represents their belief that death is a new beginning rather than an end. The circle formation is said to resemble the circle of life.


Painted only with white pigment made from a mixture of rice paste and water, with gum as a binder, the Warli paintings rarely contain straight lines. Usually, a series of dots and dashes are used to make a line. A bamboo stick, chewed at the end to give the texture of paintbrush, is used to paint. The unique aspect of this painting is that unlike other folk paintings, there is no portrayal of a mythological character or religious icons in Warli paintings.


The style of Warli painting was not recognized until the 1970s, even though the tribal style of art is thought to date back as early as 10th century A.D. Some scholars have attempted to trace the tradition of Warli painting back to 2500 or 3000 BCE by comparing Warli murals paintings to those in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, which have been done between 500 and 10,000 BC.


The first person who brought the Warli art to the limelight was Jivya Soma Mashe, the first Warli artist to receive national and international acclaim. Mashe was the first man to incorporate certain modern motifs such as bicycles, building, cars, etc. into his art to make it more relatable to the masses. He also began using colors other than white to create his art.


Warli art has now evolved beyond the traditional forms of painting. Paintings are now made on paper to make Warli art more accessible to the public. Warli patterns can now be seen on clothes, linens, vases, coasters and other products. The government of Maharashtra has adorned its websites, buses, offices with Warli paintings. For promoting this art, Coca-Cola India launched a campaign ‘Come Home on Deepawali’ featuring Warli painting to highlight the ancient culture and represent a sense of togetherness.


Earlier immersed in social and religious tradition, Warli art now became a source of economic stability and exploration of individual creativity. Though the motifs remain the same the significance of the art has changed over the years. Whatsoever changes may come but the Warli art will always remain a pure life without a sign of death, decay or distortion. 

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