Dressed with Earth

Anil Vangad’s muddy visual narratives

Artists typically cite multiple influences on their work. Warli artist Anil Vangad’s first and deepest influence was very close to home: He learned to paint from his mother, not unusual where the artistic learning tradition is passed down from one generation to another. 

The Warlis are a tribal community, descendants of Neolithic hunter-gathers who now live in the coastal areas of western India, mainly Gujarat and Maharashtra. Just north of the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai is a small settlement of the Warli tribe, where Anil grew up. 

For Warlis, art is integral to everyday life.  Traditionally, the married women of the village paint symbolic religious images on the walls of their homes, which are covered with cow dung or mud using white rice paste, only on special occasions such as weddings and births, and for festivals. 

Beginning in the early 70s, the Warlis began transporting these images from the walls of their homes to paper and cotton canvasses, making them accessible to a wider audience. Anil retains and continues to paint his religious narratives in traditional medium of cowdung and mud while also introducing contemporary materials of cotton cloth and water-based colors, which is easily available and can be rolled to store and transport without damaging the artwork.  The process is similar to the original wall murals. After ironing the fabric to remove creases, a thin layer of cow dung or red mud is applied, mixed with commercial gum to adhere well to the cotton. The images are then added with white water-based color, using a stylus fashioned out of a bamboo twig from the backyard. 

Anil brings great focus to his visual narratives, which are typically based on oral stories and myths. But, whether he is depicting a simple scene from the daily life of his tribe, or grand narratives from ancient Warli folklore, Anil’s work has energy that can be witnessed. His paintings – simple line drawings, even mere outlines – can almost be mistaken for a child’s work. However, much is going on in these storyboard murals, drawing in the viewer, inviting us to look closer, to follow the story, to understand the Warli community today. The selective use of the basic geometric shapes of circles, triangles and squares painted only in white on red earth gives vibrancy to the paintings. 

Anil also recognizes the social and industrial change that the tribe is witnessing and experiencing, and he is not afraid to show this in his work. Contemporary issues such as education for women and female foeticide are represented in his pieces along with the more mundane trappings of contemporary life - cars, planes and ships – but always under the watchful presence of the Warli spiritual gods and goddesses. 

Anil’s wife Sangeeta assists him in painting.  Their two daughters live in Mahableshwar, a small hill station away from the village, in order to get an English education. So, while they’re not around, as he was with his mother, he is proud of them and repeatedly says that that whatever he earns is for his daughters. 

Being a farmer, Anil grows rice. The time around the monsoon is busy sowing and preparing the earth for a new round of farming.  Anil says this is also the time you’ll hear the Tarpa – a trumpet-like instrument played from June to October. Men and woman alike dance to its strains, rotating counter-clockwise in an endless circle, just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago enjoying the new beginning of life. 

Recently in July of 2014, Deccan Footprints introduced Anil Vangad’s work to the Santa Fe Folk Art market for the first time and in September 2014 he was awarded the WCC Award of Excellence from UNESCO for his painting. 

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