The Warlis are the one of the major tribes of Maharashtra. While largely concentrated in the Dahanu and the Talaseri Talukas of Thane District and in some areas of Nasik and Dhule District of Maharashtra, they live also in Gujarat, in Valsad, Dangs, Navsari and Surat Districts, and in the Union Territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu.
The Warlis speak the Varli language, which has no written form and is classified as Konkani, which belongs to the group of Indo-Aryan languages. Though they have their own animistic beliefs, lifestyle, customs and traditions, the Warlis have also adopted many Hindu beliefs and mores.
The Warlis are cultivators and gatherers, growing usually a single crop of paddy. Other sources of earnings are gathering forest produce and keeping livestock. They live a simple life that is dependent on agriculture and nature. Their habitat is full of varieties of animals and birds, and fruit trees like Chikoo, Sitaphal or Custard Apple, Amrood or Guava, and Banana. Toddy trees are in plenty and integral to the landscape. Bulls, cows, goats, hens, cats and dogs are kept as pets. All play a role in the life and culture of the Warli community.
The Warlis have a rich and long tradition of wall painting done by women. These paintings are usually made inside their homes, the size of painting determined by the size of the wall. These paintings have two groups of motifs. The first has ritual motifs. These are traditionally painted by married women known as Suvasini (a woman whose husband is alive) and are always made on an inside wall of the hut. The second group has decorative motifs. These may be painted by anyone, usually the young girls of the community, and are made typically on adjacent walls, even on the external walls of the huts.
The armature of the walls of the huts is made from a mixture of bamboo, reed and stick, smeared with a paste of clay and cow dung. The final coat is done with red clay (Geru), which gives a terracotta colour to the walls. This is the colour of the background of Warli wall painting. The Warlis use only the colour white for painting. This is prepared from a mixture of rice flour and water, and applied with the help of a small, smooth bamboo stick or grass twig. The wall paintings are made on occasions like weddings and harvests.
The central motif of each ritual painting is the square (sometimes a rectangle or a rectangle with triangle on top) , the Chauk or Chaukat, on the side of which Palghat Devi is depicted. Palghat Devi is the mother goddess, a symbol of fertility. She is the central motif of these ritual paintings and is surrounded by some other essential motifs like Dev Chauk (a square in which the gods Kuldevta i.e. Panchsirya, Narayan, Hiroba and Jhoting are represented), Dhavleri (a lady priest who perform rituals of marriage), Bhagat (a Shaman who invokes deities and is possessed by the gods), Suvasini, Bride and Groom riding a horse. The scenes of various activities related to marriage and community feasts are depicted alongside scenes of hunting, fishing and farming, festivals and dances, figures of trees, birds and animals.
These paintings are made at the houses of both Bride and Groom. Painting work starts on the morning of the wedding day and is finished by evening. The painting is then covered with a cloth. The bride and groom are not allowed to see the painting until after the main ritual of marriage is over. The Bhagat unveils the painting and checks that all essential Kul Devta (gods and goddesses) are represented, before the bride and groom are allowed to see it and offer their prayers to Palghat Devi. These paintings, made on the occasion of a marriage, remain on the walls for several years.
Since these ritual paintings are made only occasionally, the painting skills of the women are rudimentary and their style rather simple. The bodies of humans and animals are depicted by means of two triangles, placed one on other or side by side, touching each other at their tips. The upper triangle represents the torso, the lower triangle, the pelvis. Head and limbs are added to these. Use of opposing triangles to make human and animal bodies and silhouette type figures are the main features peculiar to Warli painting. The trees, insects, fish and birds are painted freehand.
Until the beginning of the 1970s, the Warli painting tradition was carried forward by the women of the community. During the 1970s, the age-old tradition was radically transformed. A male artist, Jivya Soma Mashe, started to experiment with a non-ritual kind of Warli painting. His work marked a turning point in Warli art.
This was the time when Pupul Jayakar, a cultural advisor to the Government of India, had initiated a programme of revival of the traditional indigenous arts. Bhaskar Kulkarni, who had achieved considerable success in Bihar in the late 1960s, with a programme to provide livelihoods through Madhubani painting, was deputed to Maharashtra to encourage artists to use their traditional skills to make a new kind of painting.
Bhaskar Kulkarni was himself an artist and resident of the Malad area of Mumbai. He encouraged the Warli community to paint on paper. When he invited three Warli women painters to visit Delhi for a workshop, the women agreed on condition that Jivya Soma Mashe accompany them as escort. At the time, Jivya was in his 30s, an agricultural labourer, with some interest in painting, who would occasionally help the Warli women with their wall paintings. This visit to Delhi signalled the beginning of a new era for the entire Warli painting tradition. While the women artists produced the conventional ritual painting, Jivya Soma Mashe created wondrous new images depicting the everyday life and legends of the Warli community. Everyone was enormously impressed by his talent, imagination and creativity. Jivya Soma Mashe was recommended for a National Award, which he received in 1976. The All India Handicrafts Board also granted him a training programme. He selected six candidates to train - three girls and three boys. The girls did not complete the programme, but all the boys continued. And suddenly a huge window of opportunity was opened for a new male tradition in Warli art.
Jivya Soma Mashe went on to receive many national and international awards and is regarded the world over as an artist of stature. A lot of young boys have since been drawn to the occupation, inspired by the artist who earned fame and wealth from a painting tradition he made his own.
Warli painting is now dominated by men. Women who still paint are few. Even at the time of a wedding, the Suvasini will draw just the initial four lines of the Chauk and leave the rest to the men painters. Warli art in its new format is providing an important source of livelihood for many young Warli men.