As the clock struck midnight on March 7, a group of Warli women were busy painting on the walls of a lobby at the palatial Collector Office in Palghar, Maharashtra.

The women, artists from different areas in Palghar district, had begun at 9 am and, with breaks in the middle, worked overtime until 1 am to finish their task, covering the walls with the distinctive, geometrically aligned, white-and-ochre Warli art. There was enough time for the paint to dry before the artwork’s inauguration, which was held on March 8, to commemorate International Working Women’s Day.

This was a significant event for a few different reasons. For one, it represented an assertion of a usually marginalised Adivasi cultural identity on the walls of a government building – the team, which calls itself the Dhavleri group, had approached the collector to secure permission to do the work.

“I felt it was important for Warli art to be visible there as Palghar is a fifth schedule area with a large Adivasi population,” said Adivasi social worker Kirti Vartha, who was one of the group’s founders. She was referring to the fifth schedule of the Constitution, which guarantees certain special rights and protections to areas with large tribal populations.

It was also significant that the group solely comprised women – though women are the community’s traditional artists, once Warli art began to gain global recognition, almost every artist that attained widespread fame and success was a man.

Further, the artists’ choice of subject was uncommon. The painting depicted prominent roles that women have traditionally occupied in the Warli community. While Warli art can cover a vast range of subjects, the women did not recall encountering another instance of artwork focusing on these roles. These include the Dhavleri, which refers to widows who are marriage officiants, the Sanvasin, comprising married women who accompany the bride and perform important functions at weddings, the Soyin, who are midwives and traditional healers, and the Talanwali, who perform funeral rites. Over the years, the Warli community has adopted many practices of caste society, leading to a decline of these roles and erosion of other traditions. “I wanted people to be aware of the important place women had in Warli society,” said Vartha.

Restoring the traditional roles of women in the practice of Warli art is the core aim of the Dhavleri group. In essence, the women are seeking to counter two layers of marginalisation and erasure that have occurred due to the large-scale commercialisation of the art form.

The first of these is the erasure of artists from the Warli community from the art.

“Warli art is copied a lot these days,” said Poonam Chaure, coordinator at a Warli-led NGO named AYUSH. “In many spaces you’ll find non-Adivasis making this art.”

The second is the erasure of Warli women within the field of Warli artists. “When its commercialisation began, men began to take over women’s traditional role in painting Warli art,” said Vartha. “We are working to reclaim the art form for women.”

Shalini Kasat, Tanya Urade, Suchita Kamadi and Rajshri Bhoir, members of the Dhavleri group, with a chauk painting at Wada taluka, Palghar. The group is seeking to counter the erasure of women from the art form. Photos: Nolina Minj

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The Warli community is indigenous to the coastal border regions of southern Gujarat and northern Maharashtra, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu. The traditional art form has been around for thousands of years, and largely served a ritualistic function, till its commercialisation began in the 1970s.

Before the 1970s, Warli art was the unique domain of the Sanvasin, and the main occasion on which paintings would be created were weddings, at which they would traditionally paint the inside walls of the kitchen in the bride’s house with the lagn chauk or wedding square. The Sanvasin would usually go to the bride’s house a few days earlier to help prepare for the event. In traditional houses, the walls to be painted would be plastered first with cow dung and then geru, or red mud. Paint brushes were made of young bamboo sticks and the paint was made of rice, ground into a paste.

The Dhavleri also had a prominent place in this ritual. She would sing a song stretching over hours, which would invoke Warli gods. In accordance with the invocations, the Sanvasin would paint the respective deities and motifs in the chauk.

This changed when Warli art began to attract national and international attention, most significantly through the work of a male artist, Jivya Soma Mashe, who was from Ganjad village in Dahanu taluka. Mashe was noticed by a government officer from the textile ministry, during a period when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to discover talent in art among India’s tribal communities. Mashe became hugely popular, and his work was showcased in art galleries in metropolitan cities in India and the West. He was conferred the National Award for Tribal Art in 1976 and the Padma Shri in 2011.

Along with the form’s recognition came wide-ranging commercialisation. Today, you can buy Warli themed coasters, wall hangings and bedsheets amid various products in the market. From event banners to government reports, the lively stick figures with triangular bodies have become a common signifier for tribes. In 2013, even the soft drink corporation Coca Cola used Warli art in an advertising campaign for Diwali.

“Today anywhere in the world if you draw a Warli human figure, people will recognise it to be tribal art,” said Sunil Parhad, voluntary member of the core team at AYUSH. “They know it represents indigeneity.”

With the recognition of Warli art came wide-ranging commercialisation. Even the soft drink corporation Coca Cola has even used the form in an advertising campaign.

As the market economy made inroads into the region and men realised the commercial viability of Warli art, they increasingly began to take over the form, side-lining the very women through whom it had been handed down for centuries. “When Warli art started to become popular it was men who began painting professionally and went abroad to exhibit their art,” said Parhad. Besides Mashe, it was primarily other male Warli artists, such as Rajesh Chaitya Vangad and Madhukar Vadu, who achieved noteworthy success.

Locals in Palghar area observed that over time male artists have replaced the Sanvasin even for the traditional paintings done at weddings. Vartha notes as the form grew in popularity, the practice also spread outside the community. “Nowadays, along with Warli men, non-Adivasi men in the area have also taken up Warli painting as it is a profitable business,” she said. “As an increasing number of people from the community have adopted Hinduism or Christianity, the Dhavleri have also been replaced by Brahmin pandits or Christian priests at weddings.”

In was in response to these developments that Vartha, along with artist Suchita Kamadi and others in the community, set up the Dhavleri group, and began working to revive the traditional practice of Warli art for women in Palghar district. It is an apt area for such a project – located 120 km north of Mumbai, it was carved out of Thane district in 2014, and has an Adivasi population of 37.39%, with the Warli community forming the largest group.

As Vartha sees it, the popularisation of Warli art was accompanied by major losses for women in the community. She even rued the fact that Mashe is considered “the father of Warli art”, saying, “If women have been painting Warli art for centuries, then how can he be the father? Sure, he made Warli art famous around the world and enabled some to pursue a livelihood through it. But this also harmed the livelihood of women from the community. The money that women were supposed to receive is now being earned by men. Our rights have been snatched from us.”

Losses to women aren’t the only problem – the art itself has been distorted in the process. As the artists have changed, so has the form – specifically the chauk, the standard motif. A traditional chauk has a square at its centre, which houses the deity, Palghata. “Each stroke, each line in the chauk has a deeper meaning,” said Suchita Kamadi. But with commercialisation, artists began to focus more on the decorative aspects of the art, setting aside its sacred meaning.

Nowadays a chauk often has an additional triangle on top of the square which makes it look like a temple. Representations of Ganesha and the cross have also made their way into the chauk. Kamadi, who as a child saw her grand aunt, a Sanvasin, painting chauks, said, “If we don’t take up this work now, it’ll be lost to us forever.”

The loss of control of the Warli community over their own cultural heritage was starkly revealed by an online dispute in 2007, which involved AYUSH, the Adivasi collective, whose name is an acronym for Adivasi Yuva Shakti.

The group was formed in 2005, by a few young professionals of the Warli community in Dahanu, who wanted to create a support system for other Warlis. All the team members had their own full-time jobs and carved out free time in their schedules to pursue this work. At first, they focused on creating support networks, providing guidance on higher education for young Adivasis, and helping them build their careers – having studied in Mumbai they noticed a lack of such support for Adivasi students.

The team had realised that social media held great power in attracting attention, especially from the youth – so, in 2007, they started an Orkut group that served as a forum for online discussions. For a representational photo, they posted an image of a traditional Warli painting.

A few days later they received a message from the representative of an art gallery in Germany, who said they had rights over the original painting and threatened the group with a legal notice. The gallery claimed the photo was of a painting that it had procured from a Warli artist in Palghar. (While group members recalled the incident, they could not remember the name of the gallery or the artist – the specific details have since been lost in a defunct Yahoo account.)

The group was stunned. They had grown up seeing Warli art being used all around them, and no one had ever raised questions about intellectual property rights. It was free for everyone to use, but if it did belong to somebody, it had to be the Warli community.

“This person was threatening the very community from whom he had purchased the painting,” said Sunil Parhad, the member of the core team of AYUSH. “We wondered about how we could protect our rights.”

This was only the most dramatic incident that set members of the group thinking about the community’s claim over the art form. “In those days, we had observed how people were buying paintings from our people for Rs 500 and selling them for Rs 5,000-10,000,” Parhad said. “In airports, I have found Warli paintings made by non-Adivasis selling for Rs 10,000 and above.”

To counter this kind of appropriation – and in the German gallery’s case, aggression – the group decided to register itself as an NGO, and apply for a Geographical Indication for the art form. A GI is a tag given to products originating from a specific geographical location, which serves as an international certification of quality and distinctiveness for goods being manufactured in that area. As a member of the World Trade Organization, India is a signatory to “The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights”, or TRIPS, which covers GIs. Under Indian law, GIs are registered under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act, 1999, which came into force in 2003.

Since the art belongs to a community, it can’t be registered as a patent or a trademark, which would exclude others from practising it for commercial gain. But the members of AYUSH hoped that getting a GI tag would enable the community to lay claim to their ancestral and cultural heritage, and ensure that nobody could accuse them of stealing a form of expression that was their own. GI rights also bar unauthorised users from claiming that their own products originated from the indicated area, thereby ensuring that authentic products will have a certain premium associated with them.

Poonam Chaure, coordinator at AYUSH, outside a Warli centre and store in Mahalaxmi, Dahanu taluka of Palghar. Obtaining the GI tag for Warli art ensured that authentic products had a premium attached to them.

Obtaining a GI is a lengthy and costly process, for which applicants need to secure historical records and official documentation to show a product’s proof of origin, and to map out the geographical area of its production. The AYUSH team approached government institutes for guidance and sponsorship in the process of applying for GI registration, but to no avail. In 2011, they decided to proceed on their own with support from the Tribal Research and Training Institutes in Gujarat and Maharashtra for maps and government gazettes. They finally obtained the GI registration in 2014.

While AYUSH is the registered proprietor of the GI, it encourages artists from the community to register under the law as “authorised users”, who produce Warli products according to set standards. The registration not only covers Warli paintings but also includes products such as books, stationary, furniture, decorative items, and clothes.

After securing the GI tag for the art form, members of AYUSH went from village to village in Dahanu, searching for people from the community who did Warli painting, and encouraging them to create products that AYUSH would pack, market, and sell. In all, they met more than 450 artists in the region. They believed that the only way to save Warli art and culture was to link it with sustainable livelihoods for the community.

In certain instances, the AYUSH team has intervened when they have felt that Warli art was being misused by others. In some of these, their arguments were bolstered by the fact that they had registered a GI for Warli art.

In 2017, a Mumbai-based NGO held a beautification drive at Dahanu station, which including some paintings of Hindu gods in the Warli style. After locals, including those from the AYUSH team protested, saying those gods weren’t a part of Warli culture, those paintings were redone.

Later that year, a lawyer brought to their notice a successful application to trademark Warli-style human figures by a Dutch lighting company named First Technologies BV. The team sent the company a legal notice, and forced it to abandon the design. In another instance, from 2018, Bata launched a footwear line designed with Warli art, inviting consumers to “wear the story of survival”. AYUSH sent them a legal notice, too, and started a petition asking the company to drop the line as they found the products to be of a disrespectful and demeaning nature. Bata acquiesced to the request.

Obtaining the GI was a significant moment in the community’s efforts to reclaim its art. But members of the group explained that while it has helped mark out authentic Warli products, it would be far too expensive and cumbersome for the community to take action against all infringements.

“If we had the funds, we could work on both producing Warli art and object to infringements,” said Sachin Satvi, president of AYUSH. “So far, we have only acted upon extreme cases, but you’ll see GI infringements of Warli art happening everywhere in markets and exhibitions.”

For Satvi, the protections under Indian law feel inadequate, because they don’t include specific protection for tribal art. He cited guidelines that have been developed by indigenous communities in Australia on indigenous cultural intellectual property rights, which emphasise the need for respecting art made by indigenous communities, allowing them to determine for themselves how their art is produced and used, and taking their consent for every step in its commercial use. “There is a need to update or modify the law to provide special protection for tribal art,” he said.

As the practice of Warli art, and its commercial exploitation, have spread outside the community, its traditional function and meaning have been adversely impacted.

Ramesh and Rasika Hengadi are a celebrated Warli artist couple from Bapugaon village, which lies deep in the interiors of Dahanu taluka in Palghar. On a blazing afternoon in mid-May, I visited them, along with Poonam Chaure, the coordinator at AYUSH. Traditional huts made of mud and bamboo still abound in Bapugaon, but the Hengadis live in a cement house. As we approached it, I noticed Warli art painted on the tree outside. A knob on the tree trunk formed by entwining branches had been cleverly painted over to depict a bull with horns. I could tell we had reached a home of artists.

When I entered the house, Ramesh was sitting at a table, busy painting. Rasika walked in from the kitchen, fetching us cool water from an earthen pot. The walls of the living room were full of accolades and certificates that they had been awarded over the years. Most were in Ramesh’s name; a few in Rasika’s.

Ramesh explained that the art form could not be separated from Warli culture. “This painting has been done since centuries, we can’t have a fixed mark or measure for it,” he said. “Its identity is the very culture it comes from, because the motifs we make are inspired from daily life, our customs, and traditions.”

But commercialisation has meant that many, especially non-Adivasis, have copied paintings made by Warli artists without understanding what traditional motifs symbolise. “We can’t stop people from making art, but there is a difference in the art that I create, which is inspired from our Warli lifeways and what non-Warli people make,” he said. “They shouldn’t label it Warli art, but instead say that they are inspired from it. There is a deeper meaning behind each motif in my paintings. Looking at copies I can tell that there’s no meaning in them.”

Warli artist Ramesh Hengadi outside his house at at Bapugaon in Dahanu taluka of Palghar. Warli art is deeply connected with Warli culture, and outsiders typically do not understand the significance of different motifs.

Traditional motifs include deities, instruments, and customs. “If you have an idea of Adivasi culture, then by looking at the motifs, you’ll figure out whether it’s been made by tribals or not,” said Chaure. For example, the linear pattern of alternating red and white squares in a chauk represent Pophala – a mother goddess. Similarly, the triangular patterns represent the dhak – a musical instrument played at weddings. When clubbed together, the motifs often tell a story about what’s happening in the painting. A few in the community believe that Warli art is in fact a lipi – a script, which has been used through the ages to pass on cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. “We’re not against any non-Adivasi artists, but you see, the meaning of our culture is being changed,” Hengadi said.

He added, “We should be able to indicate originality. If art made by people from the community sells, then they can also have a livelihood through it.”

Warli artists are not against commercialisation. Hengadi’s art has sold around the world. AYUSH produces a wide range of products, from saris to keychains, and the Dhavleri group, too, creates and encourages Warli painting on canvases, and other items on a smaller scale. But most have strict principles about what can and cannot be painted in art created for commercial purposes – for instance, depictions of gods and deities are generally reserved for rituals alone.

Even as Ramesh has benefited from the male takeover of Warli art, he thinks that there have been unwelcome changes to the ceremonial aspect of the work. “Earlier the Sanvasin would take a whole day to paint the chauk, nowadays men finish it in two to three hours,” he said.

The Dhavleri group takes longer than a few hours to paint a chauk, because the pattern they paint at weddings is true to the traditional form. On the sultry morning of May 14, I accompanied them to a bride-to-be’s house in Wada taluka of Palghar district, where they had received an order to paint a chauk. As we rode through verdant hilly terrain, the periodic breeze blowing in from the Arabian sea nearby provided necessary relief.

It took four members of the Dhavleri group close to six hours, with a few breaks, to paint a dual chauk for a double wedding in the family. For the background they used a mixture made of mud, water, and gum, and for the motifs they used white acrylic paint. Warli painting is slow, precise, and painstaking work that requires protracted concentration.

For their very first order to paint a chauk in May 2020, Kamadi was accompanied by Vartha and her elder daughter, Tanvi – the three worked well into the night to finish it. Later, Kamadi would sometimes go alone to paint a chauk, which would take all day. But now, with a team that has gained much practice, the paintings are finished faster. As the women painted, the household was abuzz with wedding preparations – a stream of family members and guests continuously went in and out. Many would stop by the wall for a bit, admire the work and ask questions – this became a fine opportunity for the group to promote their work.

The women were understandably tired by the time it was finished. But their eyes lit up when the time came to show the painting to the bride-to-be. “The chauk is like a letter of appreciation that we present to the bride,” explained a beaming Kamadi.

In recent years, there have also been other measures to restore the traditional role that women played in Warli culture and society. On May 22, the Gram Panchayat of Ambesari village, in Dahanu taluka, organised a communal wedding for 17 low-income couples. Instead of Brahmin pandits, the wedding was officiated by three elderly Dhavleri women from the locality. For the marriage rites, the women sang a song for a little over an hour, invoking their gods and ancestors, as the couples stood facing each other. Wizened with age, the three stood leaning against the edge of a raised stage which seated special guests, holding their traditional candle, which is symbolic of the Dhavleri in Warli art. Vartha pointed out to me that ideally there should be women younger than them to take over their duties even for ceremonies today, but that they were hard to find, partly since traditions weren’t being passed down.

Dhavleri women who officiated a communal wedding at Ambesari Gram Panchayat in Dahanu. Ganpat Gawli, the Gram Panchayat Development Officer, believed that such a ceremony would held preserve traditions.

Ganpat Gawli, the Gram Panchayat Development Officer at Ambesari, said that it had become a trend to invite Brahmin pandits to officiate Warli weddings. “Our youth haven’t seen weddings presided by the Dhavleri,” he said. “Our culture is becoming extinct. It’s important to preserve our traditions. And so, I felt if we organise a community wedding then the Dhavleri must officiate it.”

Sunil Parhad, who is also the secretary of the central office of Adivasi Ekta Parishad, was invited as an honorary guest at the mass wedding. A grassroots collective established in 1992 that spans across Adivasi areas in western India, the Adivasi Ekta Parishad is a key force driving cultural and political assertion and revival amongst Adivasis in Palghar district. When called to the mic, Parhad stressed on how significant it was that widows were traditionally given the role of officiating marriages in Warli society.

“In other communities, women’s rights are snatched away when they become widows, they are deemed inauspicious,” he said. “But in our Adivasi community, we might live in jungles, and we might not be literate, but we know how to respect women and respect each other.”

He encouraged people to honour women’s traditional roles, and have more weddings conducted by the Dhavleri.

In 2019, an informal survey conducted in Palghar and Dahanu talukas, found only 56 Dhavleri in the area. Vartha and others regularly promote and encourage people to pick Dhavleri women as wedding officiants. The younger generations, which have become socially conscious, have been more inviting of them.

“Our traditional practices show how equality between men and women was traditionally present in our society,” said YouTuber Vishal Golim, who is from a younger generation of men that are supportive of women’s assertion within the community. “We have to preserve this.” Golim makes videos about Palghar and the Adivasi culture of the area in his spare time, often covering the Dhavleri group’s work. His wife, artist Rajashri Bhoir, is also a part of the group.

But even the Ambesari wedding did not adhere to all the Warli traditions. When Vartha, who previously served as the women’s secretary of Adivasi Ekta Parishad, took the stage to speak, she asked the couples, “Did your families have chauks painted at home for your wedding?”

“Yes!” they responded in unison.

“Who was called to paint the chauk?” she questioned further. After a bit of silence, some responded, “the painter” – indicating men who worked as painters, and not Sanvasin. “This right here is the problem!” Vartha said. “Isn’t it the Sanvasin who did the painting traditionally?” She urged the crowd to restore the traditional role of the Sanvasin.

Vartha attributes the disenfranchisement of Warli women’s rights over their traditional art to increasing patriarchal influence from other cultures. Listing the many liberties Warli society provided its women, she said, “At present our culture is getting ruined. Women had so much freedom in our society. Widows were respected and allowed to remarry, separation for couples could be socially resolved, and couples in love often lived together and had children, marrying later in life.”

It is partly in recognition of the liberties that women traditionally had that the group chose to name itself after the Dhavleri, though it mainly focuses on reviving the work of the Sanvasin – specifically, the painting of the chauk. “The Dhavleri is an important figure in our society, there is so much honour being given to widowed women,” said Vartha. “We wanted to emphasise their role too.” She added that the name is also intended to highlight the traditionally symbiotic relationship between the Sanvasin and the Dhavleri.

As we drove back from Ambesari, we passed by picturesque Adivasi hamlets flecked by trees and rivulets. Parhad began to point out areas that were going to be cleared to make way for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project despite heavy protests.

Like several other Adivasi areas in the country, Palghar too has a long history of dispossession and displacement of Adivasis. In Palghar district alone, the bullet train project is set to displace 73 villages. Other upcoming projects in the area that will cause more deforestation and displacement include the Vadhavan port, the Mumbai-Vadodara expressway and a greenfield airport. Approaching Palghar town, we drove through roads lined by chikoo orchards, many of which Parhad said comprised land that once belonged to Adivasis but had been grabbed by sahukars – moneylenders. “Now we only work there as labour,” he added wistfully.

Sunil Parhad, member of AYUSH and Secretary of the central office of Adivasi Ekta Parishad speaking at the communal wedding in Ambesari. Parhad said that many Warlis now work as labour on land they once owned.

What will happen to Warli art as the jal, jangal and jameen, or water, forest and land, of Warli Adivasis is steadily depleted because of expropriation?

“Everything is interconnected. If you build a dam on a river, you change its course and disrupt its ecosystem,” said Parhad. “Just like that, Warli art will greatly suffer as the people who make it are displaced from their ancestral lands.”

The work of cultural assertion that groups like AYUSH and the Dhavleri group do in Palghar runs parallel to the work done by other organisations like the Bhumi Sena and the Birsa Asanghatith Shramik Sangh Ekta, both of which are wings under the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, and fight for the community’s rights over land and resources.

The revival of Adivasi culture cannot be separated from the protection of Adivasi land. Vartha explained that it is this very landscape, which Warli art captures so well, that has mesmerised people around the world. From the original materials used to paint Warli art on the walls of mud houses to its very motifs, Vartha said, “Warli art is poorna naisargik – all natural.”

Correction: The artist Jivya Soma Mashe was from Ganjad village, in Dahanu taluka, and not Dhamangaon, in Talasari taluka, as previously stated in the piece.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.