Hour-glass figurines wearing crowns sit in a semicircle, deciding the fate of people on earth. The brown canvas is filled with dashes of rain, painted in white. In the painting, Gods Making Rain, people go about their daily chores. But, the ox pulley is driven by a man who cannot walk, and water levels are checked by one who cannot see. This paradox implies the supremacy of the gods, who hold the rains. The painting, by pioneering Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe, reinforces the idea of a drawn history, rather than a written legacy. The centuries-old art form from Maharashtra found its way into international galleries and exhibitions through the work of Mashe, who took it out of its ritualistic boundaries.
Advised by Mumbai-based Paramparik Karigar, an association that promotes Indian traditional crafts, UK-based creative producers Jeremy Theophilus and Barnet Hare Duke travelled to the coastal town of Dahanu, nearly 12 km north of Mumbai, to meet the Warlis in 2006. Prompted by their specialisation in exploring crafts in South Asia, Theophilus and Duke initiated a series of projects between the UK and India. More than 10 years later, UK-based artists, filmmakers, and musicians have partnered with Warli painters for an exhibition that will travel to the British Ceramics Biennale (BCB) later this year.
Themed “Heart:Beat”, it grew from the two-week artists’ residency in Palghar, Dahanu. BCB, Manchester Metropolitan University, and the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), Ahmedabad, have partnered on this project. It reflects in filmmaker Johnny Magee’s 10-minute film Warli, where music, song, dance, farming and daily chores of fetching water and collecting firewood leave impressions on the Warli canvas. Even without facial expressions, the animated bodies show the business of everyday life. The cow dung and mud-washed base of these paintings were done on walls only by the women until the ’70s. It changed hands when the government saw the potential of developing the art form. Men such as Mashe took the baton to establish themselves as artists. Ramesh Hengadi, who has been a fixture of the Warli project for over a decade, says, “Warli painting is not about drawing an animal or a human figure. There is a deeper context and meaning.”
Inspired by Hengadi’s birds in flight, Manchester-based ceramicist Stephen Dixon made metre-long birds in coir using Palghar’s basket weaving techniques. The birds were laid out in a circle next to a flock painted with rice flour at the Kanoria Art Centre, Ahmedabad, last month. “I was interested in people’s aspirations and the effects of change and progress on the traditions of the Warli community. Also in some of their domestic objects, stories and traditions,” says Dixon.
Art-design consultant Lokesh Ghai had conducted workshops in a municipal school in Dahanu and a primary school in London, as part of the project’s education promotion. “Warli paintings have always been about nature, stories of the forests, gods and their relation to man. For ‘Heart:Beat’, we invited around 14 Warli artists across Maharashtra to paint on the theme of change. They present contemporary themes in their 4×4 canvases. There are drawings of exploitation of forests, and earth consumed by greed and development at the cost of nature. The women artists depicted their sense of power through education, entrepreneurship, even figures driving cars,” says Ghai.
While Jasleen Kaur painted terracotta pots with the Warli women, sound artist Jason Singh interpreted the voices and noises of the village into a rhythm of his own. “Rice is ubiquitous in this region. Everything from rituals of harvesting to what people eat and the songs they sing, focus on rice. Even the paintings used to be done with rice flour, until recently. Jason employed these songs of harvest into his own music,” says Ghai.
What was once a painting done during weddings, has now become an art form that is universally recognisable. Ghai warns, “Not everything is Warli art. There is symbolism in the form, including the way the feet are directed in a dance or the crown on the gods. If people don’t imbibe that, they lose out on the richness of the centuries-old traditions.”
This project is a way to enhance and elevate Warli art for the future generations. “Ramesh’s ambition is to establish a Warli Kendra in Bapugaon, his village, so that the practice can thrive and grow,” says Duke.