Warli Wise

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A new exhibition presents worldly wisdom and snippets of life from the tribal paintings of the Warlis of India

If your heart yearns for a few fat droplets of hot tropical rain and the lush green of rice-fields in the month of July, well, I can suggest a weekend activity that holds the promise of petrichor (the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil) and the lure of paddy, here in Sydney! The Coo-ee Gallery in Bondi is where you need to be, as on display here are murals in red ochre and charcoal dust from the land of the Warlis (who live in the mountains and on the coasts of Western India) from internationally acclaimed artist and Padmashri winner Jivya Soma Mashe and master painters like Balu Ladkya Dumada, Shantaram Ghorkhana, Balu Soma Mashe and Krishna Pasari.
Art is an intrinsic part of the Warli way of life. It is an important ritual in weddings and for celebrating the year’s harvest. Their medium is rice paste and gum; their tool supple bamboo sticks; and their graphic vocabulary basic, comprising dots and lines, and circles, triangles and squares. Squares represent chaukats or chauks, which are sacred enclosures used to house the gods. Their men and women are made of two triangles joined at the apex with circular heads. And to differentiate their Gods from mere mortals, the Warlis put a throne on the deities in the paintings.

The Warlis are a god-fearing tribe and their gods are an angry bunch. Khansari, the rice goddess, rebukes greedy farmers who refuse to share their harvest. Palaghata, the marriage goddess, must be seated (drawn) inside the chaukat, which is tediously adorned with intricate borders, to keep her appeased for ensuring fertility and marital bliss in a household. But the gods are not all wrath and fury. Sometimes they like to move it too, as shown in Balu Ladkya Dumada’s The Dance of the Gods atop mountains, where the gods of Ashergad indulge in fun and frolic while those of Gambhirgad look down upon them. The gods of Gambhirgad are “gambhir”, which means somber, and they embarrassingly watch the gods of Ashergad as a threat to their dignity and godliness. Midway through the painting, the chief goddess is found dangling on the rocks as she falls from the mountain top trying to look for her missing nose ring. The moral of the story is “when you are doing good things, do not be embarrassed”. That is quite a change from the drama our regular gods unleash upon us!

Interestingly, male gods are unusual among the Warli. Another amusing point made by Gangadharan Menon, who has been in close proximity with the Warlis and their worldly ways, relates to how their gods came into being: “Originally, the Warlis never worshipped man-made idols. The shaman (priest) of the village on his sojourn to the nearby hills would pick up small rocks that spoke to him in positive tones. These would be kept under trees, and they would then become their places of worship. Over many centuries, influenced by mainstream religions, the weather-beaten stones eventually took man-made shapes and temples were built around them.”

Like for most Indian adivasis, the forest was a community resource for the Warlis before British colonial rule in India forced them to settle down and start cultivation. Fishing, farming and agricultural activities are therefore recurrent motifs in their paintings, alongside dance and drunken revelry. Women perform the ritual of muthi when the new harvest is brought home. Muthi, which also means the fist, involves creating fist-like paisley patterns, representing a fistful of grains, on the walls of granaries and kitchens. The ritual promises the abundance of food at home and yield in the fields, a reminder of the ritual of drawing the feet of the Goddess Lakshmi in Hindu households to bring in wealth and success.
Now that food and lodging is taken care of, can dance and trance be far behind? Not for the Warlis. The Tarpa, a horn-like wind instrument made out of dried gourd with an inserted hollow bamboo stick, is an auspicious symbol and hence, finds a place of pride in their paintings. Jivya Soma Mashe’s Tarpa Tribal Dancing Circle, a highly acclaimed piece of art which was exhibited at the Magiciens de la Terre in 1989, features this mystical organ and quick-footed dancers circling it.

Among the women artists, only Parvati Dumada’s work has reached us, which is a tad ironic. I say ironic, because Warli paintings are traditionally made by women or suhasinis as they are called. They learnt these skills and the knowledge of the songs and traditional paintings from the elders or dhavleris. The dhavleris, in turn, received this knowledge through dreams either from past ancestors or Creation Beings, a concept which is very similar to indigenous Australians. Dumada’s painting talks of a village without water, where the headman has monopolised the village well and the women of the village come to the rescue by digging up an old river which once ran dry. To celebrate their success, they make wine and have a ball. In the painting, they are seen inebriated and happy. As a community, it speaks well of the Warlis, where the women work hard, sing songs, save the day and make merry.
Yashodhara Dalmia, an authority in Indian tribal art and anthropology, notes, “Warli paintings are strangely ascetic and do not consist of myriad primary colours, unlike the Madhubani of Mithila or the Patachitra of Bengal. They are rich, yet hieroglyphic in effect.” So while you decipher the little dots and the codes on the canvas, I cannot guarantee if all the paintings displayed will speak to you. Some might seduce you with their natural symmetry and balance and some will scream for your attention and demand that you be patient with them as they unravel their mysteries to you. Some may just be morbid and cold, like a distant relative. In some, you may find yourself. And in one, you may even be lost.
White Rice and Red Ochre: Warli Tribal Art of Western India is on at the Coo-ee Gallery, 31 Lamrock Avenue, Bondi until 18 July, 2015.

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