~Illustrations by Prashant Vilayil
Before the commercialisation of Warli art, tribal women used the exterior mud walls of their huts as canvases, and rice paste as paint. Just as the means were borrowed from nature, so were the motifs depicted in the paintings. What is intriguing about this primaeval relationship between art and nature is that both - at least to some extent - spring from foundations rooted in universal patterns.
A known fact about Warli paintings is that geometric shapes serve as the building blocks for iconography. These patterns depict the world around us, rendering the complexity of real forms through simple and calculated brush strokes. The circle depicts heavenly bodies such as the sun and the moon, while the heavy use of triangles generally denotes trees and mountains. The latter of the two shapes is highly versatile and can be used to create a plethora of designs. When joined, two inverted triangles symbolise humans or animals, depending on the pattern. Finally, squares symbolise the land that is sacred to the tribe.
The development of such an art form points towards two deductions. First, the human mind uses logical reasoning to break down composite ideas into their elemental parts. The depiction of the vastness of existence through the mathematical precision of geometry is, therefore, genius in both form and content. Second, the Warli tribe represent natural phenomena through geometry precisely because geometrical patterns do exist in nature.
The hexagonal forms found inside the beehive, and the repetitive rings within tree trunks are only a few of many examples that are present in the physical world. In fact, sacred geometry is a cosmological worldview that believes in the sacrosanctity of geometric congruence. The origins of this belief system can be traced back to Plato. The fundamental idea is that the universe was created on the basis of a geometric plan, and therefore the repetition of such patterns can be found in sacred groves, crop circles and even mandalas - pointing to the symbolic harmony that exists in the world. Ergo, the science of shapes is sacred.
This notion of the mathematics of spirituality finds an expression in Warli art. As the paintings were conventionally carried out for the purpose of rituals, the pattern at the centre is typically a square known as the chaukat, symbolising sacred land. The components at the nucleus depict the Mother Goddess, representing fertility. This is an auspicious occurrence. Warli weddings cannot take place without first painting the Mother Goddess at the threshold of the bride’s home. The symbol of fertility is of paramount importance for the adivasis as their sacred beliefs revolve around the perennial cycle of birth and death. And so, the deity is represented within this divine geometric enclosure that underpins spirituality.
Triangles, of course, are the most important shape in Warli design. Men are represented by larger triangles on top and women by wider ones at the bottom. In this way, they complete each other. It has been speculated that the reasoning behind this representation lies in the tribe’s version of what we know as the Yin and Yang. The supposed binary of man and woman, in this case, is brought together through an understanding that while opposite, they are still created from the same matter. The basic shapes serve as simple building blocks for the art style, allowing the adivasi artists to depict increasingly complex phenomena. Such is the beauty of Warli. The two-dimensional art form has neither the concept of perspective nor proportion and yet is able to convey the primordial truth of what unifies all life thriving on this planet.