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. 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. 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.
Saura art works (Courtesy of Arts of the Earth Gallery)
As Meena Varma of Arts of the Earth Gallery further elaborates, the Saura artists used rice powder and toned their canvases with cow dung mixture. The two tribes used bamboo sticks as their paintbrushes. While the former have recently switched to acrylic paint and a thin fine brush for commercial purposes, the Warli artists, interestingly, still continue to use bamboo sticks, though they have also done away with rice paste for white paint.
With changing times and globalization, the tribal artists have been incorporating contemporary themes to make their works socially relevant, while at the same time, maintaining the original fabric of their work. Since the Warli artists are farmers, their paintings contain ordinary scenes of their everyday life, domestic animals (sheep, hens, cows, bulls), the harvest seasons or the monsoon. Their contemporary motifs now include aeroplanes, buses, ships, and autorickshaws as though an invasion into their natural world and sacred spaces.
Responding to the recent pandemic, Anil Vangad uses his style of magical realism by unleashing a red dragon into the orderly busy life of the Warli world. Tensions are palpable – people run helter-skelter; others feverishly wash their hands; the regular daily work is abandoned; there is prominent presence of health and sanitation workers; and to top it all, the red virus monster spreads out its deadly tentacles to bring life to a grinding halt.
Anil Vangad's work (Courtesy of the artist Anil Vangad)
Manas Das attempts to make Saura art more stylized and specific to the mood and the theme of the work. Notably though, Das is not an original Saura artist; he has studied and understood the visual language thoroughly to enhance the contemporaneity of the motifs. With his use of Saura animals and birds, he has led us back to the original works to admire the intricacy of the patterns of figures and animals that dance and move in their world. It is as though he has scooped out scenes from the busy narrative and constructed them as independent short series of life. He encourages you to contemplate and hum along with the rhythm of the lines and patterns that dot the black canvas with their exquisite perfectness.
Manas Das' Saura works (Courtesy of Arts of the Earth Gallery)
Balu Mashe and Sada Shiv Mashe, the sons of the famed Jiva Soma Mashe, continue to carry on with the rich legacy left by their father while younger artists Anil Vangad and Amit Mahadev inject fresh blood into their works with newer and modern themes. Appropriation of Warli art can be now seen everywhere – be it textiles, digital designs, coffee mugs or clothes. Foreign artists are equally intrigued by this art form. Recently, a group of Japanese artists even adopted Ganjad village of Palghar district to keep Warli art alive and thriving. The art form continues to survive as the motifs are simple and easy to depict and one can create endless stories forever.
Saura art has found their way to the market, though it is not as widely popular as Warli art. Through the efforts of the Odisha state, young tribal artists paint on public buildings, greeting cards and fabric. Most of the tribal people have converted to Christianity and their shamanic customs and practices faded with time. “It is being practised only in the isolated village of the Langia Sauras of the hills that one finds the Ittalams (paintings) in their true sacred and spiritual context,” says Meena Varma. Meanwhile, Saura art continues to wait for their messiah.
M.D. Muthukumaraswamy, “Saora Art: Tale of the Man and the Snake”, sahapedia, 2018.
Jitu Mishra, “The Ancient Hill Tribe of Lanjia Saoras”, blogvirasatehind, 2019.
Kusum Kanojia, ”Steal a Look into the Lives of Sauras”, Deccan Herald online, 2012.
I am grateful to Meena Varma of the Arts of the Earth Gallery for her invaluable notes on the Saura tribe and use of the Saura images. Anil Vangad generously gave his time and permission to use his images for the article. I am equally indebted to Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan of Sahapedia for extensive notes on folk and tribal arts of India. And, finally, had it not been for an accidental stumbling upon Poorva Khandelwal’s workshop on Warli art in the early 2000s, I would have perhaps not ventured into this fascinating world of tribal and folk art.
Shantala Palat is an artist, art educator and an ardent lover of folk and