The story behind the Vayeda Brothers’ Warli mural in Delhi’s Lodhi Art District

As part of the second edition of St+art India and Asian Paints’ residency project, ‘From Craft to Contemporary,’ Warli artists Mayur and Tushar Vayeda experimented with new tools on a familiar art form.
Asian Paints  StArt residency Warli art

Art is inherent in the everyday lives of the Warli tribe, indigenous to the Thane region of Maharashtra. Paintings typically adorn the walls of Warli houses, created at specific times as a form of worshipping local deities, protecting the family from evil spirits and commemorating life events, such as marriages and births, rituals, and harvest celebrations.

Historians trace this tradition of creating visual narratives to 2500 BCE, with women as its primary practitioners, using young bamboo shoots and white rice paste to paint on red mud backdrops. Today, Warli art has travelled via canvases to galleries and museums globally, including a 2016 Warli-themed exhibition at the V&A Museum in London. Along the way, Warli motifs have become commercially successful and are applied on everything from coasters in state emporiums to Kurtis in hippie flea markets—often separated from the spiritual symbolism they hold for the Warlis.

“With the widespread commercialization of tribal art forms, it is our responsibility to represent Warli art in its true sense and reintroduce it in the right direction,” says Mayur Vayeda. Along with his brother, Tushar, Vayeda is part of the young generation of Warli artists who have been experimenting with new techniques while preserving the context of the art form.

Recently, the Vayeda brothers undertook a six-week-long project of painting a Warli mural against the facade of an entire housing block in Delhi’s Lodhi Art District in collaboration with St+art India—the not-for-profit organization working towards making art accessible through public projects—and Asian Paints.

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From Sahyadri to Lodhi

“Warli paintings are not only concerned with rituals, worship and weddings,” says Mayur. “They also depict our lived experiences in the Western ghats. Of being brought up within the Warli community, and our familiarity with the natural surroundings.” Mayur and Tushar, 29 and 34 respectively, who grew up in the Warli village of Ganjad have been practising the art for almost 14 years.

Over the past years, the Vayeda brothers’ works have been a part of gallery and residency showcases across this globe, including the Artisan Center, Mumbai; Modesti Perdriolle Gallery, Brussels; Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Bisbane; and Mithila Museum, Tokamachi. In 2019, they received the Ojas Art Award for the Artist of the Year.

Their mural ‘Valley of Elements’ is rich in the pictographic elements of Warli art, communicating the tribe’s connection with their environment. Painted as a sloping gradient of mud-red in the traditional Warli style of minimal paintings that rely a lot on reinterpreting geometric shapes as different natural motifs, the massive artwork depicts the flora and fauna that surrounded them growing up. “In every layer of the mural, viewers will find Warli motifs, each of which has a name. We wanted to combine all these indigenous elements on a wall so viewers can understand and interact with authentic Warli artwork,” adds Mayur.

The artwork wonderfully captures the rhythmic quality of Warli art, where each element is depicted either in motion or slightly swaying, owing to the gentle rendering of the geometric shapes.

Like many tribal communities, Warli history was traditionally passed down orally, which means outsiders didn’t have access to them. “It’s not problematic for us when people outside our community paint Warli art. But it is important that they understand the links between the motifs and Warli beliefs and emotions,” says Mayur. “When we create such public art projects, we want to introduce not just our art form, but also our culture to viewers.”

“Through the St+art Residency ‘From Craft to Contemporary, we endeavour to bring indigenous artists to the forefront by contemporising their art form while giving them direct exposure to a global audience,” says Asian Paints CEO Amit Syngle.

Pushing the Boundaries of Tribal Art

The scale of the project made it impossible for the Vayeda brothers to rely on the tools they instinctively turn towards for their canvases, like the bamboo brushes which have been in use since the art’s inception. The exploration of alternative tools and conceptualisation of the mural began a few weeks in advance as the two participated in residencies in Goa and Delhi, under the mentorship of St+art India co-founder and artistic director Hanif Kureshi.

The Vayeda brothers worked with a team of graphic designers and art directors to visualize a sketch for the mural and find ways to execute it.

“There is a lot of repetition of motifs in tribal art forms, and we’re trying to find ways to shorten the artists’ time so they can focus more on conceptualization than repetition,” says Kureshi.

Along with scalability, such experimentations also help artists reevaluate their sense of their capabilities, which often suffers from the categorical distinctions between mainstream and tribal art. “As tribal artists, we’ve seen ourselves within the boundaries that galleries, museums, and art collectors have imposed on us. Such places only commission tribal art in its traditional sense, created using the most basic tools,” says Mayur. “Before this, we had never thought of experimenting with different tools in a way that they help us reduce our time while preserving the traditional essence of our art. But now, our access to people from different artistic backgrounds and new techniques pushes us to think about how we can evolve our art form.”

“There are so many possibilities to paint Warli,” he adds.

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