As narrated to us by our field lead Vishakha Agrahari.
Travelling alone is something I have always enjoyed. Having travelled extensively before, I can vouch for the fact that I have not usually felt the need for company. This trip, however, was different.
The rush hour after reaching Mumbai was getting to me, and I felt like some camaraderie would have been good. With tons of luggage on my back, I made my way into the fully packed slow local to Dahanu road. Obviously, there was not enough space for either me or my luggage, so I sat down on the floor of the local train to enjoy the passing scenery, and the people around me leading their daily lives.
The western line of Mumbai local runs fast till Virar and then slows down. I waited as I watched people boarding and deboarding at every stop. Eventually at Virar, the coach was all empty except for one policeman and me. As we were about to reach the destination, I caught a glimpse of the shimmering sea and it filled me with sudden energy for the forthcoming trip.
At the station, I was welcomed by our master artist Anil Vangadh ji, his wife, and his younger brother Shailesh. The adventure began right away - at Dahanu Road station, you'll find glimpses of Warli artwork, all over the station walls, showcasing the handiwork of the locals.
We headed out for another journey, travelling about an hour from the railway station to reach what would be my home for the coming week. I was very warmly greeted by the other members of the family as we reached, including Preni, their pet dog. Anil ji has been hosting guests in his house for quite some time now, and he mentions that is the only reason why he made extra rooms in his house and bought a car!
The next morning we got up and planned our shooting schedule. However, it wasn’t practical to always stick to it as Anil ji wasn't just an artist in Dahanu, but a well-respected person in the neighbourhood who happened to know almost every passerby. I realised that he was needed by his community for certain chores and people relied on him for help. He then told me that this was expected not just of him, but from everybody. In a close-knit community of Warli adivasis, all help each other in times of need, and they are very prompt about it. I eventually saw it with my own eyes, as we went on to host more guests while we planned our shoot.
Many of the ideologies I learned from the community are beyond the norms of our regular society. From humility, and empathy to the realisation of one's happiness in the smaller moments of life. The life of this community, like others living so close to nature, is life at a slower pace. Things might take time here but are done right.
Interaction with the Family
My first impression of the household was that it is full of love, banter, laughter and tasty food! The members of the house were liberal in some aspects but also set in their ways in other aspects. They invited me to winding down on the nights to drink beer together but asked me not to enter certain places like the kitchen or touch the paintings while I was on my period.
Anil ji's wife Sangeeta vaini and their youngest daughter Aparna or Appu had a relationship that was adorable to watch. Appu would play along all day, sometimes running behind the chicks and sometimes hiding and watching us shoot. The two older daughters were not only efficient with household work but also had the dreams of a modern Indian woman. In conversation, Anil ji had once talked about his daughters’ aspirations, and that he fully supported them. In addition to his immediate family, Anil ji’s two brothers also lived nearby; unfortunately, one of them passed away during the pandemic.
In what seemed like no time at all, Anil ji's wife and I became friends. Not only did we discuss what it’s like to be a woman, but also conversed about the way of life in this modern day and age. To be completely honest, however, we bonded most on her cooking and me devouring those amazing local dishes. She mostly cooked delicious chicken with many different accompaniments– sometimes with potatoes or black gram, sometimes with white gram or kabuli chana. I started calling her ‘vaini’ (an endearing term used to refer to your brother’s wife) after having a few conversations with her. She had her own charm and was the life of the party. She cooked well and fed me with care every day, and then it was up to me in the evening to help her get ready to attend the neighbourhood wedding festivities.
It was my first time going to a tribal wedding, and in spite of trying to convince myself rationally, I must acknowledge that there was still a preconceived notion about the things I was going to witness. I wasn't prepared for a night of celebration, so I just wore my best kurti over my pants, and added my camera as my only accessory.
Finding the venue is what took up most of our time, as the community is spread across the clearings of a very huge and dense forest. What I witnessed upon my arrival was nothing less than a concert! I could sense joy and sweat gushing out from everyone around me. It was my first Warli wedding experience, and I promise, it wasn't disappointing. Within 2 hours of arriving at the groom’s house, not only did I capture some amazing wedding rituals of the tribe, but also found myself amazed at the community’s partying capabilities.
The ritual practices were performed with the guidance of the old wise men of the community: the Bhagats. These men get possessed by a deity and sacrifice a chicken! I couldn’t believe what I was watching with my own eyes (though now I faintly recall that I was watching all of this through my camera lens for the most part.)
I would love to visit again if I could keep attending the weddings. The combination of the local beverage ‘toddy’, mouth-watering meat, and an EDM/techno version of tribal music that played for hours without stopping is too good to resist. As the night progressed, and the weather began to cool down, we all struggled amongst the sweaty crowd to get something to eat from the elaborate“Indian style buffet”. Eventually, with full stomachs, we made our way back home to a restful sleep.
Over the course of my stay, I also got to attend another wedding. I witnessed the Bhagats, Suhasinis, and drum beaters; the sacrificial ceremony, the wild parties and tasty food all over again. You, too, can join in the festivities by watching our Masterclass videos.
Tadi, and Anil ji’s farm
The next day, I got a chance to see some of the many occupations of the locals. After being chased by our pet chickens during the shoot, we headed out to see Anil ji’s family farmland.
What an incredible journey it was! I still remember how we started from what looked like a very well constructed countryside home, to breathtaking sunset layered with different sceneries: old, drying trees, lushing creeks, silent blooming lotuses, and women fetching water from a well. At the end of this very beautiful road lay the big but simple farm belonging to Anil ji’s father. He greeted us with folded hands, a smile and two other friends! It seemed they had a whole evening for their party planned before we came in unannounced.
However, they were sweet enough to welcome us with open arms. I found myself most interested in capturing the essence of what was in front of me: a homegrown field with varieties of vegetables, all the colours of fresh leaves and some fruits, with one little girl exploring amidst them. She called out to me in Marathi, saying that she had found the biggest radish!
Of course, I had the opportunity to take some wonderful photographs there - and so I did! Above all, however, I brought back cherished memories. The landscape of small green water canals with lotuses blooming in the sunset made me want my secret nook within this natural bounty present in front of my eyes.
Next, we made our way to the toddy farm. At the farm, there were rows of date and palm trees, with one small earthen pot hanging from their trunks each. The toddy collectors climbed on a not-so-tall khajoori tree and got us some fresh toddy. This one was not yet highly fermented, so it tasted more like a sweet and sour chaas, with a good amount of carbonation. Seeing the cultivation up close made me want to climb a tree, and so I did! It wasn’t a palm tree, but a cashew tree. I got to see two types of cashew fruits and experience the difference in their taste when they are ripe.
With the setting sun, we came back from another night of exploring the little things that you don't get to see in most cities. You aspire to see these things because they soothe your soul. This is also why we appreciate art.
The Chikoo farm
The next day, post-shoot time was reserved for visiting a chikoo farm. A few friends from Mumbai had joined me for one weekend evening and we went exploring another pride of Dahanu. With the embrace of these low branching trees, we also got the gifts of freshly plucked sweet chikoos. We then moved to explore and shoot the beach of Dahanu, which was spirited and calm at the same time. We soon found ourselves quite hungry and ended up discovering a local chikoo wine!
We had the good fortune of seeing the sun setting into the horizon covered by the vast sea. While horse-drawn buggies ran up and down the beach, small groups of people and families either sat around or played in the water. It felt at that moment that the world I saw around me was a happy place!
The chikoo farm itself was another place where I felt the bliss of mother nature dawn upon me. Low-hanging trees filled the farm with this stone fruit peeping out from their leafy burrows. We picked up some for home. During the drive, Anil ji told me how many farms and properties in the area near the beach have been owned by many non-native residents, who remotely take care of the farms.
From many conversations with the locals, I heard about the topic of development. Many of the infrastructure options that are proposed for the region lack proper planning and ideation. A proposal for the biggest port or running tracks of bullet trains is not what this region needs to sustain. The water of the region is also dug up and supplied to many agglomerates of the Mumbai metropolitan. With acres of greenery being cleared for various projects, the region is made to go through many changes including the destruction of wildlife habitats and oxygen-giving trees!
The next evening was organised around the art of Tarpa making. Tarpa is a unique musical instrument that is made from all natural elements and considered holy among the Warli community. We saw the process of making this instrument at one of the Bhagat’s courtyards, who was also Anil ji’s neighbour. After this, the elders set the date and time of the special Tarpa dance. Since it is an instrument that holds religious and communal importance, the Bhagat asks the local deities for permission to play the instrument at a time when no festivities or events are assigned to the usage of tarpa.
The next day, a sacrificial ceremony is performed and the tarpa dance begins. Syncing with the fast leg movements and upbeat steps definitely took me some time, but I ended up enjoying it for the rest of the evening.
I was curious about all the sacrificial ceremonies that took place at multiple events during my visit. Anil ji cleared most of my doubts about the offerings involved. These included chicken, rice, toddy or any other drink and food items. He also explained the process after the sacrifice and said that nothing gets wasted because the food we offer is like an offering to God through the Bhagats. Thus the sacrifice of that event was cooked with gram and served to the guests, with some fresh toddy!
Anil ji shared some very personal experiences with me on how he discovered his faith. One of the stories he told me was about the treasure hunt event that is organised as an orientation ceremony for young adults in the community. He said that he was totally aware of his bodily senses and could figure out all the objects from their hiding place, and also felt heavier than his usual weight, which might indicate the presence of the spirit of the deity. He also mentioned that he respects the beliefs of his community but only after properly understanding the reason behind each ritual and custom.
If you want to learn more about the Warli community, art, and culture join our Warli masterclass.