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The Warli Painting Artist Jivya Soma Mashe

Jivya Soma Mashe, Warli Painting, 2003, Stiftung Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, Germany. Detail.

Indian Art

The Warli Painting Artist Jivya Soma Mashe

Today, May the 19th, marks the birth anniversary of an internationally acclaimed Warli painting artist, Jivya Soma Mashe. A tribal artist from India, Mashe was known for wonderful Warli paintings, which owe their origin to prehistoric rock art. Warli painting allocates aesthetics to everyday life instead of traditions. Additionally, it is a method of a celebratory act by the community, rather than an ad hoc aimed to convey a message. Mashe and his family were lifelong proponents of Warli art, reviving its form and content in the contemporary milieu.

What is Warli Painting?

Warli painting, Jivya Soma Mashe, The Tarpa Player And The Dancers, date unknown.
Jivya Soma Mashe, The Tarpa Player And The Dancers, date unknown. Fine Art America.

On a flat, coarse background of Indian red or burnt umber, a spiral of minimalistic human figures, holding hands, appears to move in a circle animatedly. Notably, the figure in the center, presumably a man, holds a large instrument. Referring to the merriment vibe and dancing figures, one can deduce that it is a musical instrument. What is it called? The human figures are far from a realistic rendering. Incredibly, they are simply two triangles, joined at one vertex, with a circle as head and linear gestures of hands and legs, rendered in white chalk. Furthermore, the surrounding space shows huts, trees, and a few more human figures involved in daily routine. This is a fundamental visual of Warli painting.

Warli is the name of a tribe based in a couple of towns of Western India. Etymologically, waral in Warli means a piece of land. As suggested, ancestors would spare a part of their land, amidst a forest, to irrigate. Subsequently, the Warli tribe became known for its minimalist art form. According to the tribal art convention, the form of the circle derives from the sun and moon. At the same time, the triangle is from trees and mountains. Finally, a square, which is pure and devoid of origin, encloses the main deity, called Palghata in chauk.

Instead of representing religious and mythological subjects, they are known to render social and customary life commemoratively. Hence, a central figure plays a musical instrument called Tarpa. Surrounding him in a circle, the villagers dance, interlocking their hands with alternate partners. Furthermore, Warli painting artists depict scenes of farming, smithing, and fishing, among others.

In the process of the Warli art, artists prepare the wall with brick, geru, and branches. They use chewed bamboo sticks to paint with rice paste bound by a certain gum. However, today the artists have switched to canvas, paper, and brushes.

Warli painting Jivya Soma Mashe. Tarpana, c. 2001, rice paste and gerue on canvas
Jivya Soma Mashe, Tarpana, c. 2001, rice paste and gerue on canvas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia.

The Warli Tribe

“In the way the Warli spread unassuming bits of wood on the ground, to dry them in the sun; the way they lay out their rice crops; and, just as simply, and among other examples, the way they clean the trodden earth floors of their huts, all this calls to mind, by way of the subtle, sensitive, and elegant attention paid to each of these actions, the fact that their sole deity is the mother goddess, goddess of the earth and fertility, “Palaghata”.

This cult, if that is what it is, inspired–and still to this day inspires–in them profound respect for nature. The Warli also express this respect for nature through painting. Through their themes, motifs, and rudimentary style, all Warli paintings–and more particularly the works of Jivya Soma Mashe, the first artist from this tribe to break free from ancestral rituals–seem to be in praise of the Earth, just like every work resulting from Land Art.”

Hervé Perdriolle in: Jivya Soma Mashe / Richard Long: an encounter, The Contemporary Indian “Other Masters” Collection.
warli painting Jivya Soma Mashe at work in front of his house, 2009.
Jivya Soma Mashe at work in front of his house, 2009. Photo by Romain Mounier-Poulat via Wikipedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0).

Jivya Soma Mashe: Reviving the Identity of Warli Painting

An Indian Warli painting artist, Jivya Soma Mashe was born on the 19th of May, 1934, in the Dhamagaon village of Maharashtra, India. Significantly, he implemented instrumental recognition of the tribe on the world map of art. Not only did he reverse the age-old ritual of women-oriented folk art but also transitioned it to a status of contemporaneity.

Warli painting Jivya Soma Mashe
Jivya Soma Mashe, Untitled, cow dung and acrylic on raw canvas, date and location unknown. SaffronArt.
Warli painting Jivya Soma Mashe, Untitled (Warli), natural pigments and cow dung on cloth, date and location unknown
Jivya Soma Mashe, Untitled (Warli), natural pigments and cow dung on cloth, date and location unknown. SaffronArt.

Due to his mother’s untimely death at his age of seven, Mashe did not speak for a while. To communicate, he would draw figures on the dust, which appealed to the community. Surprisingly, this granted him his initial local recognition. Although Warli women solely practiced this art, Mashe dismissing the traditional ritual and continued to practice undeterred. Additionally, he was radical in developing a set of new forms and compositions. Additionally, the newer template of practicing Warli painting inspired the budding artists of the community.

Warli painting Jivya Soma Mashe,  Fish men, 1997, acrylic and cow dung on canvas, location unknown
Jivya Soma Mashe, Fish men, 1997, acrylic and cow dung on canvas, location unknown. Jivya Soma Masche: A Collection.

“There are human beings, birds, animals, insects, and so on.. Everything moves, day and night. Life is movement…”

Jivya Soma Mashe in Tribals Art magazine, September 2001.
Jivya Soma Mashe at work.
Jivya Soma Mashe at work. New Indian Express.

International Recognition

Having been appreciated by the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Jivya Soma Mashe gradually acquired momentum in receiving national and international exhibition invitations. In 1975, his first solo exhibition, under the mentorship of Bhaskar Kulkarni, an artist from India, was held at Chemould Art Gallery, in Mumbai. In the following year, his debut international show was conducted at Palais de Carnolès, Menton, France.

Warli painting, Works of Jivya Soma Mashe at the exhibition "Autres Maîtres de l'Inde, créations contemporaines des Adivasi," Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.
Works of Jivya Soma Mashe at the exhibition Autres Maîtres de l’Inde, créations contemporaines des Adivasi, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Upon receiving fame, Jivya Soma Mashe attracted several international photographers and artists. They would arrive at his rural home, where he would humbly greet and serve them. Among them were, Richard Long, an American artist, and Herve Perdriolle, a French art critic, collector, and curator. They were notable associates. They spent a long time at his residence, meeting the local community and acquainting themselves with the folk culture of India. While there, Richard Long, with the involvement of local men, practiced large-scale land art. In 2003, at Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf, Germany, Richard Long and Jivya Soma Mashe had a joint exhibition.

Hervé Perdriolle, Jivya Soma Mashe and Richard Long, front the Jivya Soma Mashe house, Thane District, Maharashtra, 2003
Hervé Perdriolle, Jivya Soma Mashe and Richard Long in front of Mashe’s house, 2003, Thane District, Maharashtra, India. The Contemporary Indian “Other Masters” Collection.
Warli painting, Jivya Soma Mashe, Untitled, 1997, location unknown.
Jivya Soma Mashe, Untitled, 1997, location unknown. Jivya Soma Mashe: A Collection.

Awards and Recognition

Jivya Soma Mashe was a recipient of the National Award for Tribal Arts in 1976. In addition, he was conferred with the Shilpi Guru as well as the Prince Claus Award in 2002 and 2009, respectively. One of the reputed Indian government awards, he received the Padma Shri for contributing to the tribal art of Warli. Notably, The Warlis: Tribal Paintings and Legends by Chemould Publications, and The Painted World of the Warlis, by Yashodhara Dalmia, are two books that feature his life and work.

Mashe’s life and works are coordinated by the simplicity yet grandeur, harmony yet vibrancy, and primitivism yet modernity. The unifying space on a deep red surface almost evokes a primeval instinct of biodiverse life. As we tread deeper into his drawn figure and objects, a meditative stance stirs our being to record each moment of change. Working until the end, Jivya Soma Mashe passed away on the 14th of May, 2004, at his residence in Dahanu, Maharastra.

Learn more about Indian art:

Urvi Chheda is artist and art researcher based in Mumbai. Currently, she has enrolled in MVA Art History at the Faculty of Fine Art, MS University, Baroda, India. She runs, swims, treks, and is learning Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art form.  She has graduated from the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, India.


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