I have always loved Indian art, but my definition of what that meant was pretty specific. I loved the Mughal miniatures that hung in my home as a child, that my parents showed me in their Indian art books, and that we went to the Met to see for a special exhibition when I was a teen. I loved the romantic images of gods and goddesses reclining with peacocks and tigers, of kings and queens embracing on terraces overlooking beautiful endless vistas, of colorfully (and scantily) clad women dancing in groves of palm trees. I even loved the battle scenes with men riding elephants and camels with huge spears over their heads. I loved the intricate detail and the vivid colors and the sense of something so huge wrought to small.
After some time in this country, I now know that the Mughal miniatures are just a very small (if also very popular) part of what makes up Indian art. Tom and I have purchased a couple pieces of traditional art from Orissa that we fell in love with: one large piece that tells Krishna’s life story in detailed etchings on palm leaves and another smaller one in a similar style depicting Saraswati. I simply had to have a couple pieces done by a Gond artist from Madhya Pradesh: one of deer and birds, and another of birds in a tree. And we’re both on the look-out for the perfect carved wooden elephant.
One traditional art form captured Tom’s imagination the first time he saw it, but took a long time to grow on me. Warli art depicts village life, showing people cooking, carrying sheaves of wheat, caring for children, shepherding animals, and dancing at festivals. They are usually surrounded by trees, deer, birds, cows, and other aspects of nature. The forms are simple with people and animals made up of connected triangles, usually painted in black on a light background or in white on dark background. They don’t paint in bright colors and they don’t romanticize their lives – I wanted us to get a painting because Tom loved it so much, but not because it spoke to me. And then I learned that there was going to be a Warli art class – this was my way in!
Last week, I had the incredible privilege of learning from Kusum who came from her village in Maharashtra to teach a series of classes at Sevita Centre for Arts. When I arrived for her first class, she had only been in Bangalore for a couple hours, having traveled by bus for 24 hours to get here. She speaks Marathi and understands a little English, but does not speak it. Still, this kind and talented artist was not going to let a little thing like a language barrier keep her from imparting all she was there to share. Devaki, one of Sevita’s founders and a former colleague of Tom’s at CIS, translated what we needed for context, but mostly the three of us in the class just did our best to observe and copy what Kusum was doing.
Warli art comes from the hunter tribes of the borderlands between Gujarat and Maharashtra. Their earliest art was drawn on the walls of their red earth huts, using a white paint made from crushed rice. It would fall off the wall after a year and then they would paint again. Eventually, they made the transition to a sort of light cotton canvas and created the backgrounds from a variety of materials mixed with a little water and glue to make sure they last: the reddish brown background is still made from red earth, a golden background comes from yellow earth, a greenish background comes from cow dung, and the black background comes from wood ash or charcoal. Again with an eye toward art that will last, they began using poster paints in either black or white mixed with glue. While some of the techniques have been modernized, much of the art is done as it has always been done, with whimsical characters created from triangles. Occasionally in modern works, there will be animals with curved forms. Because the traditional art only depicted domesticated animals and birds, there are only established ways of drawing domesticated animals and wild animals can be interpreted by the artist.
After spending time with Kusum and looking through the art she brought with her, I have a new appreciation for it and can see the beauty and light so much more clearly. I started a painting during class and Tom returned with me on Sunday to finish it together. We look forward to taking home some work by Kusum as well as one done by her son. This art form has been taught through the generations and it’s lovely to think of that continuing in Kusum’s own family.
Does our painting look like one done by an accomplished Warli artist? No, it does not. But will it be a happy reminder of time spent with an amazing artist, broadening my own concepts of art? Yes, it will.