The Warlis are well known today amongst elite circles for their unique form of decorative art. They paint life with an intricacy of detail and an amazingly beautiful way of depicting every aspect that surrounds their daily routine. Traditionally, they painted on walls during the time of celebrations or for auspicious occasions but gradually over the years the images and themes were also transferred to small curios made of bamboo, cloth, pots of mud and dried bottle gourd. One of the main themes that occur in their paintings is that of people dancing in spirals and open-ended circles. For the Warlis, time is akin to a circle – with cycles within cycles repeating themselves endlessly. They see themselves as joyous dancers in this time frame. This cyclic nature of time is played out in all spheres of their life and can be best seen in their annual cycle of work, thanksgiving, enjoyment and work again. Their art also expresses an interesting aspect of their inherent philosophy, that of austerity. All their stories, with its various moods and nuances are expressed with just two basic colours – the brown of the earth and the white of the rice paste.
Their paintings prominently depict tigers, corn fields, rats, cockroaches, horses, snakes, peacocks and other manifestations of nature. This reflects the unique relationship that they share with nature. Personified as Hirva, nature is seen as the provider of all their requirements and Warlis identify themselves with Pardhi, the hunter companion of Hirva and see themselves as protectors of Nature.
This holistic view of life is expressed through many small daily practices. Warlis previously did not plough the land, as this would hurt Dharitri or mother earth. Till very recently, they refused to use synthetic fertilizers, even though it was highly subsidized and at times distributed free. The Warlis knew with their inherent wisdom, that this would dry up the earth. While cooking, bhakris are only slightly roasted, as over roasting and over cooking would result in the grain Goddess Kansaari’s back getting burnt. The Warlis do not milk cows, their reasoning being that the cow’s milk is for her calf.
The life-support system of the Warli is linked with that of the forest. The Warli is dependent on his forest for anna, arogya and aasra (food, wellbeing and security.) The current paradigm of development and non-inclusive forest policy has put the Warlis through pain and alienation. The impact of continually being marginalized is best illustrated through the shift in the Warli-Tiger relationship. The traditional relationship of the Warli with the tiger is one of respect. When a Warli heard the roar of a tiger, he would say ‘paaona aala’ meaning ‘the guest has come’. The footprints of this visiting God in a field was celebrated by breaking a coconut and smearing the space with gulal. The presence of this footprint was welcomed as a sign of good harvest.
Today, the Warlis are being denied their rights to forest and land in the name of providing protection to the tiger and the forest. It is time that these gentle people are given back their rightful place in the forest, as ‘Jungle cha raja’ or king of the jungle. It is time Pardhi (hunter)was reunited with Hirva (nature).
Written by: Erica Taraporvala Photographs: Vikas Shinde, Sunil Gokarn Copy editor: Priyanka Brijwasi