Warli in Dharavi

While Warli art has become as gentrified as an art gallery in a heritage urban precinct, the reality it represents is hugely significant.

The presence of tribal communities in the Mumbai Metropolital region is not so well-known. Warlis, Kathkaris, Thakkars, Bhils are some of the many forest linked communities that are as integral to the peripheral landscape of the city as are industries and concrete developments. The fact that Mumbai encompasses both, the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the world, along with a natural tropical forest within its municipal limits, is also a counter-intuitive complement to this story.

While Warli art has become as gentrified as an art gallery in a heritage urban precinct, the reality it represents is hugely significant. Tribal communities in India represent a relatively independent section of a caste-based society. Their loss of control over forest lands, which traditionally provided them the economic basis of social independence had a huge impact on their lives. Today all statistics on poverty are actually framed by a community based angle and the scheduled tribes constitute one of the lowest indicators in terms of economic status. And yet, they are at the forefront of political resistance in different parts of the country. Within the larger narrative of tribal India, the potency of even gentrified, over-exposed art forms from the Warli community tell something about the complexity of social life in India.

Warli art has historically been showcased on the walls of their homes. The stylized images are powerful expressions, and their simplicity only enhances the meanings conveyed. Bodies that are slightly bent express motion, arms and legs may consist of only a few lines but communicate much more.   The paintings are a way of telling stories and depict scenes of everyday life, mythological stories, events expected in the coming year, or just entertainment. The Warli style of painting is said to date back many centuries and may have migrated all the way from Africa. Today, many people have moved to the city of Mumbai and scenes of everyday life in this dense city are very different from the old paintings.

Later this year, probably in September, we are planning a one week event in which young people can learn Warli art. Warli artists will come and teach children, teenagers, and students how to tell stories of their own life in attractive drawings and paintings, a bit like in cartoons. At the end of the week, the paintings will be brought together in an exhibition which will show everyday life in Dharavi as seen by today’s young generation.

The event is about connecting art and everyday life. Warli painting will be connected to the city, and youngsters will learn an art that once was part of the life of their own family. It is about making connections between the city and tribal, the present and tradition.

It goes without saying that the exhibition will be opened with a great celebration in which all participants can proudly present their achievements to their friends, families, and the community. Although the event is primarily educational, the artists will have a good time too as Dharavi is an extraordinary place to make paintings of.

The images in this post are made by artists of the Adivasi Sahaj Shikshan Pariwar Center in Masvan Palghar. Their art work is a source of income from which the center can finance its activities: education, healthcare support, social forestry and farming, and women empowerment.

The event will be organised in a close cooperation of local schools, Warli artists, URBZ, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Contact Sytse de Maat for more information.