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Indigenous artist Sanjay Parhad paints intricate Warli motifs on innovative canvases such as umbrellas to generate business during a COVID-19-related slump. Photo: Courtesy of Sanjay Parhad

Indigenous artists in India adapt traditional practices and attract new customers

A collective of Warli artists in India say they’ve found a promising new market for their work by painting on facemasks and umbrellas

By Freny Fernandes , in Culture , on December 3, 2020 Tags: , , , ,

They were painters practising their inherited Indigenous art, using materials as they always had. But when their paintings weren’t selling during the pandemic, they embraced modern canvases to boost their trade.

The Warli artists from Maharashtra, India started adorning essential items such as umbrellas, facemasks and lanterns with their distinct artwork, providing them with an economic lifeline.

Sachin Satvi, the founder of the non-profit organization AYUSH, a Warli youth collective that provides the community with a platform to sell its work, said the drop in the market for Warli art was obvious within the first couple months of the lockdown in India.

In response to the drop in art sales, the collective reached out to former customers online to see if there was interest in buying items such as facemasks and umbrellas with Warli designs. The response was overwhelming and the orders flooded in, said Satvi.

“The collective of artists in our circles spent the last few months working on these orders. They crafted and sold 300 bamboo rakhis, over 500 Diwali lanterns, 2,000 face masks and 2,000 umbrellas, painted in the popular Warli style,” he said.

The Warli community is one of the largest tribes in the western state of Maharashtra, India. Warli artists are known for their distinct traditional paintings, made using intricately crafted motifs with nothing but simple circles, dashes and triangles. Art pieces are known to tell stories about Warli life and daily activities like such as fishing and farming and include elements of nature from the surrounding region.

‘Every painting has a story behind it’

Sanjay Parhad, a Warli artist from Vangaon, was one of those who had made a living selling his traditional paintings and hosting Warli art workshops. As happened with others, his livelihood came to a grinding halt when the pandemic hit.

So he gave up on selling his paintings and turned to his rice and toor dal farm to make ends meet.

Then he heard about the work Satvi was doing and joined up with the collective of Warli artists at AYUSH — giving new canvases a traditional artistic twist.

“We made umbrellas during the rains and after that, we made sarees, kurtas (long tops), dupattas (shawls) and bedsheets. For the Diwali season, we made kandils (lanterns),” he said.

“For these items, like the umbrellas, we show the general activity, daily lives and work of the people.”

Dahanu-based Warli artist Rajesh Mor said it was necessary to adapt to the economic reality he and other artists were facing. While they had to change their canvases, he said their work still reflects traditional techniques and values.

“Every painting has a story behind it,” he said.

‘This is just the beginning’

Because of this AYUSH initiative, artists like Mor have been able to recover lost incomes. Mor earned around 50,000 rupees (approximately $880 Cdn) a month before the pandemic. But as his sales tanked, so did his revenue.

Since the sale of the new Warli essential items, Mor said his monthly earnings have slowly risen back to pre-pandemic levels.

Satvi said this product shift might be the start of a new creative era for Warli artists.

“We have many more ideas that include using minor forest produce like seeds in our art. This is just the beginning.”