Stamford artist passionate about Warli, a centuries-old art form from India
Published 12:00 am, Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Prachi Khade-Gurjar travels light when it comes to her art. She only needs a pad, a couple of markers and a tote in which to tuck it all. The weight of the centuries, however, imbue the final product — one of the oldest artistic traditions in the world.
“It dates back to the 10th century,” she says of Warli, a rural art form developed by the Warli tribe of western India, whose members live about 100 miles north of Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. “Through figures and designs, it captures a story of these small scenes from daily life.”
On this morning, her work is spread out across a table at the Ferguson Library in Stamford. It is where she conducted workshops during the past year to foster appreciation for the art and the culture that inspires it. Marriage brought Khade-Gurjar, 25, to Stamford last year, but it is her passion for the tradition that has brought her into the community.
With the advent of globalization and technology, these art forms are moving out of rural origins and into the mainstream, and are being appropriated for use on fabrics, in television commercials, on home goods and in contemporary art. Khade-Gurjar’s work has a few modern touches, but she keeps her work traditional. “The goal (of Warli artists) is not to let this art form vanish.”
Up until the late 1970s, Warli art was largely a visual language used by its practitioners to decorate their homes with scenes of rituals and festivals. As cultural and governmental agencies set out to preserve and cultivate centuries-old traditions, these artists were given a pen and paper, or paint and a canvas, and the art became mobile.
“Some were not able to make this shift,” says Kathryn Myers, a professor of art at the University of Connecticut, who has visited India several times and studied its art and culture for nearly 20 years. She teaches the elective course, “India Art and Popular Culture.” Rather than making art for art’s sake, she says, they wanted it rooted in the traditions. Jivya Soma Mashe, however, who is from Maharashtra, was a pioneer in transforming a cultural language into an artistic tradition, and bringing it to the mainstream.
It was then people began to learn more about the Warli, an agrarian society with unique traditions, beliefs and language, and the art form they created to visually communicate major social events and everyday tasks. The form is distinct in its use of simple geometric shapes to depict humans and animals, repetitive patterns, intricate borders made of fine lines, half-circles and other shapes and in its two-dimensional approach, which is mostly free of perspective and proportion. Traditionally, women would create scenes with white paint made of rice paste, which was applied on adobe dwellings with sticks. These days, it is painted (with actual paint) on paper, cloth, wood or terra cotta. Khade-Gurjar also uses black marker on a white background.
Khade-Gurjar knew about Warli growing up, as it had already seeped out of its rural confines and into urban settings. However, she had never seen it in its element. It was only as a master’s student in landscape architecture at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad, India, that she did. As part of an elective in Indian tribal art, she and other students visited villages where it was still part of everyday life.
“It was exciting … to interact with the people who have been practicing this art form for generations. It was very touching and valuable to me as an artist,” she says.
Myers sees shifts in its practice. Men have made inroads into what was a matriarchal tradition, and younger people are incorporating their own significant events and daily activities into the art. One of her students, an electrical engineer major, created a Warli work that lit up when you touched it.
Khade-Gurjar is pondering its place in landscape architecture. As the owners of mud huts once decorated the outside of their homes with white rice paste, architects have modern materials with which to create Warli designs on the sides of building or other outdoor elements.
The trick is honoring the spirit of a communal language that links a particular people and culture to a particular place and time. Should those buildings feature scenes of an agrarian society or office workers going about their daily lives? Will such an appropriation dilute the power of the original art it is meant to honor? In other words, can the life that sparked the creation of one art form be separated from the art form itself, only to be replaced with scenes of modern life?
For now, Khade-Gurjar is keeping up with traditions in her workshops and on social media, through @expressionofwarli on Instagram and Facebook. “India has a very rich culture and heritage, and art has always been a medium to express this richness.”
email@example.com; Twitter: @xtinahennessy