Warli and Saura: Distant cousins who perhaps never met

by Shantala Palat

India is a melting pot of numerous folk and tribal art forms – rich in cultural diversity, visual languages and styles. Each state has its special variants and is home to various indigenous and local communities. Certain art forms have thrived while others are struggling due to lack of resources or lack of awareness about their existence. The well-known ones that have survived through several generations include Gond, Madhubani, Warli, Kalamkari, Pattachitra , Kalighat , Phad and miniature paintings. Many of these folk art traditions have shaped the individual styles of Indian modern and contemporary artists. Jamini Roy was deeply influenced by Kalighat paintings and he used the visual vocabulary in his unique style and treatment. Contemporary artist Santosh Kumar Das has been inspired by the paintings of the famed Madhubani artist Ganga Devi and her name finds a mention in his works published by Tara Books. Bhajju Shyam, a Gond artist, painted his experiences of London using Gond motifs which he reproduced in his delightful book The London Jungle Book (Tara Books). The list is endless.

Tribal and folk art are often mistakenly considered synonymous with each other. But there are crucial differences between the two forms. One, tribal art is done by a particular indigenous and ethnic group and the name of the art form is named after them, for example, Warli and Santhal art. On the other hand, folk art is community-based and is specific to that particular region. Mithila or Madhubani art would come under this bracket. Two, tribal communities are nature worshippers and they are heavily dependent on the forest for their livelihood. In contrast, folk art revolves around their religious deities and beliefs of the community.

These art practices have been passed on from generation to generation with no formal training in art apart from what their forefathers taught them. Most of the colours and paints used in folk and tribal art are derived from natural resources, be it vegetables, rice, leaves or lamp oil.

For this first article in the series on tribal and folk arts, I have selected two art forms that are easily recognizable and familiar – Warli and Saura. The two vary in traditions, ideas and motifs and yet share common traits. Let us embark on a journey to view them and learn more about them along the way.

According to historians, Warli art dates back to the Neolithic period, ie between 2500 BC and 3000 BC. The word “Warli” originates from “Warla” or a piece of land and is also the name of an indigenous tribe from Maharashtra. Their art has been particularly noted for its simple and beautiful works largely composed of lines, triangles, circles and dots in white colour. The art owes its debt to artist and Padma Shri awardee Jiva Soma Mashe for its popularity. Till the 1970s, the art form had been limited to the walls of the house and treated as ritualistic art and done during marriage functions in the village. The paintings were traditionally created chiefly by married women and young girls of the community.

Warli art by Jiva Soma Mashe (Courtesy of Arts of the Earth Gallery)

Stepping out of that world, Mashe created his own visual imagery and language to paint scenes from his daily life: people working in the fields or animals playing or hunting their prey, and so on. His first exhibition in 1975 was a turning point and soon after he started producing paintings on a regular basis. He was much admired and highly respected in the village. Anil Vangad, a Warli artist himself, remembers fondly how the senior artist encouraged him to paint and observe the world around him. He was like a grandfather and mentor to the artist during his young days.

Anil Vangad at work, 2020 (Courtesy of the artist Anil Vangad)

Anil Vangad's Warli works (Courtesy of the artist Anil Vangad)

On the other hand, its distant cousin, Saura art from Orissa, has a curious and somewhat obscure journey. It is the name given to an ancient Munda tribe and their art from Southern Odisha. The tribe is known by other names, such as Sora, Savara and Sabara.[1] The word ‘Sora’ is derived from ‘So’ (hidden) and ‘Ara’ (tree), or in other words, people who have been living in the forest and have built their settlements deep in the forests.[2] The Saura tribe resides in several parts of Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The earliest mention of them dates back to the first century BC as seen in the Hathigumpha inscriptions from the Khandagiri caves, Bhubaneshwar in Orissa. Their presence is felt in Indian epics through pivotal characters such as Jara Savara, who killed Lord Krishna with his arrows and Savari, the great devotee of Lord Rama, while Eklavya, Dronacharya’s disciple, reportedly also belonged to this tribe.

Being one of the oldest tribes, their art is deeply entrenched in the religious customs of their community. The colours used are white and black or mud colour and white on the walls of their homes. Their strikingly detailed wall paintings, ekons or ikons revolve around their deities, the Idital. Their purpose is to please and appease the gods so that their families do not come to any harm or suffer any illnesses. They also paint these ikons to ensure a successful harvest or smooth delivery during childbirth.

Works of traditional Saura art form (Courtesy of Arts of the Earth Gallery)

Like the Warli artists, they draw human figures with triangle bodies with their circle or oval heads and stick-like arms and legs. However, while the neck is visible in the Warli human figure, it is absent in the Saura figures. The birds resemble their Warli friends while the animals range from triangular to rectanglish shapes with skeletal heads. The Warli paintings have their characters scattered across the page on a flat, two-dimensional plane, whereas Saura artists adorn their canvases with distinctive decorative borders with rows of human figures and animals huddled together within the frame. In addition, unlike their Warli counterparts, the Saura artists do not differentiate between genders. A Warli woman can be distinguished by how she ties up her hair in a bun or pony tail while their men have no hair on their heads.