Folk and Tribal Paintings: The Warli School

Academy of Fine Arts and Literature

Folk Paintings in India
A live tradition, vibrant and deep rooted into people’s blood, folk art reveals a massive variety of form and theme. Her ten-twelve thousand years old creative culture and a wide-spread art geography apart, India has hundreds of ethnic groups scattered from north to south and east to west, each with its own art form representing its taste, needs, aspirations, aims, joys, sorrows and struggles. Regional peculiarities, nature around and a different pattern of day-today life apart, their art reveals each group’s ethnic distinction and creative talent. Not in the ‘word’, these primitive peoples discovered in the ‘form’ their diction which gave expression to their joy, jubilation and intrinsic warmth and announced their rejection of violence, eroticism and the ugly.
In the form they discovered the ultimate means to discourse with each other and with the ‘divine’. Skill, education, or training hasn’t been their tool. Their legends, myths, or convictions weren’t born of texts or were the dictates of authority. They discovered all that their art sought to represent within them, in their blood that retained it across ages, almost as it was transfused into it, with its vigour and freshness which the murky narrow cells of authority often defiled, or at the most sought to gild. What imparts distinction to their art is their massive imagination, a passion to embellish, and an inborn ability to give to a routine form symbolic dimensions, and to things scattered around, status of art imagery – all that transformed into artists, not just individuals but communities in their entirety, generations after generations. In a world every minute seeking means to distort and destroy they have kept along their own tenor singing to their own tunes, dancing to their intrinsic rhythm and to the notes of their hearts, and discovering in the jumble of things, rough crude lines, raw colours and incoherent motifs, a world that breathed purity, harmony, respect and concern for life.

This three-tiered painting represents the medieval tradition of itinerant professionals/ entertainers who used large size cloth paintings to visually support their narratives – folklores and lilas of gods. Some of the better known examples of this genre are Paithan painting of Maharashtra, Pabujukipar of Rajasthan and Patachitras of Orissa and Midanapur. This painting, rendered using narrative style of Midanapur Patachitras, represents some major events from the life of Rama. On extreme left in the top panel Rama and Lakshmana are with sage Vishvamitra. Rama kills Tadka, the demoness, for obstructing recluses from performing yajnas. The next event relates to redemption of Ahilya who cursed by her husband had turned into stone. In the next episode, Ravana, disguised as a recluse, is abducting Sita. In the fourth event Rama is seen killing the golden deer. The central panel relates to Rama’s meeting with Hanuman and other subsequent events up to the construction of bridge over the sea to Lanka by Nala, Neela and other monkeys. The bottom panel depicts some random themes. Two images of the goddess Mansadevi apart, it depicts a woman immolating herself with her dead husband, and another, sacrificing two human beings, the wide-spread social evils.

it depicts a woman immolating herself with her dead husband, and another, sacrificing two human beings, the wide-spread social evils.

In characteristic Warli idiom the painting discovers life around the meadow. Different species of animals, birds, vipers, frogs, spiders, scorpions, and even man, not seeking to distinguish himself, populate this world. Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, as the novelist Thomas Hardy defined it, it is pure life without a sign of death, decay or distortion.

In characteristic Warli idiom the painting discovers life around the meadow. Different species of animals, birds, vipers, frogs, spiders, scorpions, and even man, not seeking to distinguish himself, populate this world.

Arpana requested the artist to paint single tree-form in some works. Though all folk artists have a tendency to fill-in the whole space, this single tree molit was painted on her request. Otherwise an ordinary tree with Pipal tree-like leaves and Bata or banyan tree-like roots, it is more like a motif to be read in between the lines : “protect the earth as also the sky for life sustains by both”. The tree, painted here, has roots into the earth but also in the space above suggesting the alike significance of both for life.

Arpana requested the artist to paint single tree-form in some works. Though all folk artists have a tendency to fill-in the whole space, this single tree molit was painted on her request.

Dance, which with a wave-like curving horizontal line, stretched from one end to other, dividing the canvas into two parts, is the focal point of the painting. The dancers, clad in green and yellow, alternate each other in succession. Contained in a roundel over its recessed centre is symbolic representation of universe – sky, mountains, earth, river, ocean, human and animal life, vegetation … Corners below portray various aspects of life.

Contained in a roundel over its recessed centre is symbolic representation of universe – sky, mountains, earth, river, ocean, human and animal life, vegetation.

The painting represents the ages-long phenomenon of herdsmen and women of Rajasthani deserts migrating with their cattle, as soon as the summer set in, to areas where they had for them water and fodder. Discovering figures and forms with white against a deep monochromatic back-ground, black, maroon or other, and distinguishing one specie from the other by using any single feature, as thuds to differentiate a cow and a bull, or style of hair dressing to distinguish a man and woman, is the most characteristic feature of Warli art. The black negative space above was added on the request of Arpana Caur.

The black negative space above was added on the request of Arpana Caur.

Here is a picture of life, full of delight and no trace of gloom. A man on the top close to the dancing ring is dragging his female partner to the dance, as if everyone’s participation was a mandate, social or religious. As it begins with a trumpet-player in its centre and ends with a dancer holding a flower in her hand, the sound defines its axis and beauty its end. In the painting’s centre is a bride with her groom riding a horse. All around are auspices, a calf sucking its mother, a woman carrying ‘mangala-ghata’ – auspicious pot, the other, a pot with water, another, caressing a bird, yet another, worshipping a tree.

All around are auspices, a calf sucking its mother, a woman carrying ‘mangala-ghata’ – auspicious pot, the other, a pot with water, another, caressing a bird, yet another, worshipping a tree.

In the centre on the bottom enshrines the deity with sun and moon forming its part, the rays rising from its figure turn into birds in the sky, the animal world, symbolised by a tiger figure, sustains into its being, and from its energy grow trees and generates life around.

The deity is the simplified form of the cosmos; and hence, hardly any facial features except eyes – the eternal witness. Musicians – drummers, horn blowers and dancers apart, four abstract forms – men, birds, animals or whoever, are paying it homage.

In the centre on the bottom enshrines the deity with sun and moon forming its part, the rays rising from its figure turn into birds in the sky, the animal world, symbolised by a tiger figure, sustains into its being, and from its energy grow trees and generates life around.

Here is a tree form as delicately conceived as shoots of a fern or creeper, and a squirrel riding on it as would a child on a swinging roundabout. The symmetrically laid branches produce rhythm and appear to be in a dance; and, a thread-like slender trunk hardly makes its presence felt.

The symmetrically laid branches produce rhythm and appear to be in a dance; and, a thread-like slender trunk hardly makes its presence felt.

The artist has divided the canvas for serialising harvesting related activities. Bottom right is the field with ripe crop; above it are portrayed various activities – harvesting, making bundles, piling them, cooking food, chasing away animals and, the circular area on the left is the granary used for threshing grains from husk.

The circular area on the left is the granary used for threshing grains from husk.

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