Image of geometric figures in black and white

Tracing Histories: Folk Art: Warli Art

In this series, we will delve into traditional folk art forms. Our initial focus will be on the world of Warli Painting or Warli Art. Hailing from the North Sahyadri Range in Maharashtra, India, Warli painting is a traditional tribal art known for its use of simple geometric shapes and depictions of daily life and nature.

Warli paintings, steeped in the folk art heritage of ancient India, provide a unique window into the culture, history, and artistic expression of the Warli tribe in Maharashtra.

A depiction of rural life through balck and white paintings of simplied figures
Image Courtesy: Sagar Yende and Prof. Ravi Poovaiah IDC, IIT Bombay


I. Unveiling Warli Art:

Warli art, a treasured traditional folk practice, is lovingly upheld by tribal communities in India, particularly in the northern regions of Thane and Palghar districts in Maharashtra. It serves as a visual testament to their way of life, values, and heritage. While its origins trace back to antiquity, Warli art continues to evolve, adapting to contemporary sensibilities and captivating a wider audience. The act of Warli painting, known as "lihane," is synonymous with writing in the Warli language. Traditionally, this art has been the domain of women, including specialized artists called "sahavasini." They excel in painting the "chawk," also known as "lagna chawk" or "dev chawk." This ritual painting consists of a square enclosing an image of Palaghata Devi, the Warli goddess of fertility, and plays a pivotal role in Warli wedding ceremonies, accompanied by community songs.


II. Tracing the Historical Threads of Warli Paintings:

The roots of Warli art stretch back to 2500 to 3000 BCE, evident in its visual parallels with prehistoric cave art. However, it catapulted into recognition during the late 1970s when artist Jivya Soma Mashe adopted it as a daily art form, moving beyond its ritualistic confines. His pioneering efforts earned Warli painting national and international acclaim, inspiring subsequent generations to embrace it as both an art form and a means of livelihood.

III. The Essence of Warli Paintings:

Warli paintings are characterized by a minimalist graphic vocabulary, featuring circles, triangles, squares, and lines. These elements serve as representations of community members, nature, and social events, offering a glimpse into the life of the tribal community. Remarkably, Warli art doesnt always contain religious iconography, instead it portrays nature as a deity, underscoring the tribe's profound connection with their environment.

Warli paintings, deeply rooted in cultural rituals and celebrations, showcase a diverse array of themes reflecting the tribe's daily life and traditions. Executed during marriages, Diwali, Holi, crop harvesting, and other ceremonies, these paintings depict folk dances, daily routines, nature, deities, animals, and more, using a basic graphic vocabulary of circles, triangles, and squares. The white color on a red earthen background forms the traditional palette.

The central motif, the "chauk," is pivotal, with two main types: "Devchauk" for Nature as God and "Lagnchauk" for marriage ceremonies. Devchauk features the mother goddess, symbolizing fertility and nature, while Lagnchauk portrays the bride and groom. Tarpa dance, a folk dance accompanied by a musical instrument called Tarpa, is represented with sun and moon motifs. Human figures in the paintings are depicted with two triangles representing the trunk and pelvis, while circle motifs symbolize faces. Special hairstyles distinguish males and females. Animal motifs such as cows, bulls, cocks, and peacocks reflect the farming lifestyle of the Warlis.

IV. The Craftsmanship Behind Warli Paintings:

Creating Warli paintings involves utilizing fundamental tools and materials such as handmade paper, steel plates, pencils, paint brushes, erasers, acrylic colors, and tables. The technique entails drawing motifs and human figures using interconnected triangles, emphasizing their dancing postures and intricate detailing.

V. Materials Used:

The simplicity of Warli painting finds reflection in its rudimentary technique. Ritual paintings typically adorn the inner walls of village huts constructed from a blend of branches, earth, and red brick, offering a red ochre background. Warli artists employ a white pigment created by mixing rice flour and water, with gum serving as a binder. Textured paintbrushes are fashioned from chewed bamboo sticks. These walls are painted on special occasions, such as weddings, festivals, or harvest celebrations, with the intention of preserving them for future generations.

VI. Pioneering Innovation in Warli Art:

Warli art challenges the notion of "Tribal Art" as static or antiquated. It serves as a testament to constant innovation, creativity, and adaptability within the artistic tradition. Emerging Warli artists boldly explore new themes and subjects, moving beyond the confines of traditional rituals and festivals, breaking free from stereotypical categorizations. This innovation ensures the continued dynamism and relevance of this art form.


Red and white painting
Image Courtesy: Sagar Yende and Prof. Ravi Poovaiah IDC, IIT Bombay

VII. Individualistic Flourish in Warli Art:

Warli art transcends collective expression, offering room for individualism. Several Artists utilize the Warli idiom to convey personal narratives and contemporary themes. Recognizing the individuality of Warli artists is instrumental in challenging stereotypes and fostering a deeper appreciation of their art.

VIII. In Contemporary Culture:

While traditional Warli painting initially had limited exposure, a significant transformation occurred in the 1970s with artists like Jivya Soma Mashe and his son Balu Mashe. Coca-Cola India launched a campaign titled "Come Home on Deepawali," featuring Warli paintings to celebrate ancient culture and foster a sense of togetherness among the youth. Warli art has also left its imprint on education and recognition, with the Manik Public School in Maniknagar, Karnataka, dedicating a substantial wall to India's largest Warli art painting, showcasing Warli traditions and themes. One contemporary interpretation of Warli art is by the Vayeda Brothers, a sibling duo hailing from Ganjad in rural Maharashtra. Their work gained significant recognition in 2015.

IX. Unveiling Aesthetics and Artistic Evolution:

Existing aesthetic theories and historical accounts often overlook the dynamism of tribal and vernacular art forms like Warli. These accounts tend to stereotype tribal art as monotonous and devoid of innovation. Endeavors aim to challenge these preconceptions, spotlighting the ever-evolving nature of tribal art and the agency of the artists themselves.

Warli Art: Conclusion

In conclusion, the profound essence of Warli paintings unveils a rich tapestry interwoven with historical narratives, cultural heritage, and artistic expressions. Evolving from ancient murals to contemporary manifestations, these paintings epitomize a dynamic continuum while steadfastly preserving their cultural significance. Recognizing the innovation and individualism embedded within Warli art becomes pivotal for a comprehensive understanding of this vibrant and ever-evolving indigenous art form.


Warli art, a tribal mural tradition originating from the North Sahyadri Range in Maharashtra, India, is a testament to the unique storytelling culture of the Warli tribe. These indigenous people, residing in mountainous and coastal regions of Maharashtra and Gujarat, employ the Warli language, an unwritten Varli dialect, to pass down traditions and cultural knowledge. The art form itself is a visual manifestation of their oral traditions, transforming everyday life stories into captivating visual narratives that serve as reminders of cherished values and cultural heritage.


Contrary to prevailing perceptions, Warli paintings distinguish themselves from other tribal and folk art in India, drawing parallels with African Zulu paintings. Unlike mythological themes prevalent in many tribal artworks, Warli paintings revolve around depictions of daily life activities, reflecting the tribe's simplistic belief systems, laughter, regret, victories, and tears. The Warli people, one of India's largest tribes located near Mumbai, maintain a deep connection with nature, evident in the centrality of natural elements in their paintings.

The legacy of Warli art is deeply rooted in its monochromatic appearance, simple designs, and authentic color palette. While farming is a predominant way of life and a significant food source for the tribe, the Warlis demonstrate immense respect for nature and wildlife. The style of Warli painting, although rooted in ancient practices dating back to the 10th century A.D., gained recognition only in the 1970s. Over the years, Warli paintings have undergone significant evolution, transitioning from mud walls adorned with rice paste to contemporary canvases using conventional paints and brushes.


In the realm of materiality, Warli paintings traditionally utilize a mixture of branches, earth, and cow dung for house walls, offering a red ochre background. The artists employ a white pigment made from rice paste, water, and gum for the paintings. The color palette extends to natural dyes extracted from geru, turmeric, kumkum, leaves, colored flowers, and charcoal. This restrained yet meaningful use of colors contributes to the distinctive charm of Warli art.


In summary, Warli paintings encapsulate not only a visual expression of tribal narratives but also a bridge between tradition and contemporary creativity. As an integral part of India's cultural heritage, Warli art continues to thrive, resonating with audiences worldwide and serving as a testament to the enduring appeal of indigenous artistic traditions.

Notes: 1. New Developments in Warli Art, Jothi Xavier.

2. Sagar Yende and Prof. Ravi Poovaiah IDC, IIT Bombay, “Documentation Of Warli Art.” chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/


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