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Preserving Roots: Unraveling the Impact of Commercialisation of Warli Art

Commercialization of Warli art

Have you or someone you know ever owned a saree or perhaps a kurta with Warli art motifs? If yes, you have the commercialisation of Warli Art to thank. However, if you have worn it without knowing about the art form’s deep cultural significance and history, you have commercialisation to blame.

Warli art, a centuries-old tribal form of expression, has transcended its traditional boundaries and entered the realm of commercialisation. This ancient art, originating from the Warli tribal community in Maharashtra, India, holds profound cultural and spiritual significance. The journey from tribal traditions to global market shelves has brought both opportunities and challenges, leaving an indelible impact on the art and its original creators.

Read on to explore the two sides of the coin and how the commercialisation of Warli art has both benefited and harmed it.

The Positive Aspects of Commercialisation of Warli Art

1. Cultural Appreciation:

The commercialisation of Warli art has played a significant role in bringing this traditional art form to the attention of a global audience. It has primarily led to cultural appreciation, which refers to the recognition, understanding, and celebration of the values, customs, traditions, and artistic expressions of a particular culture.

Traditionally, Warli art was confined to the walls of tribal homes, but with increased commercialisation, it has found its way into the mainstream art market and various commercial products. Art enthusiasts, designers, and consumers from different parts of the world have been exposed to the aesthetics and storytelling of Warli art through various channels such as art exhibitions, social media, and product collaborations. For example, in 2018, ace fashion designer Archana Kocchar launched a collection at the New York Fashion Week inspired by Warli art.

Palghar Ruffle Gown from the Warli Collection by Archana Kochhar (Image source: archanakochhar.com)

As a result, people from diverse backgrounds have started to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of Warli art and the significance it holds for the Warli community.

One of the key impacts of this commercialisation is fostering a deeper appreciation for indigenous artistic heritage. As people learn about the cultural and historical context of Warli art, they develop an understanding of the Warli community’s way of life, their beliefs, and their connection to nature. This appreciation goes beyond the visual appeal of the art and extends to a respect for the cultural traditions and knowledge of the Warli people.

2. Economic Empowerment led by Commercialisation of Warli Art: 

The commercialisation of Warli art has been a key driver of economic empowerment for the Warli community, providing newfound opportunities for local artists and contributing to the overall economic development of their community. Several factors have contributed to this positive impact on the community’s economic well-being:

Increased Demand and Recognition:

As Warli art gained popularity in the global market, there has been a surge in demand for authentic and original pieces. This increased demand has led to a rise in the value of Warli art, allowing local artists to command higher prices for their work. The recognition and appreciation of their art on a larger scale have boosted the artists’ confidence, encouraging them to invest more time and effort into their craft.

Collaboration with Designers and Businesses:

The commercialisation of Warli art has facilitated collaborations between local artists and designers or businesses. This has opened up diverse opportunities for artists to showcase their creativity and skills in various forms, such as designing products, apparel, home decor items, and accessories featuring Warli motifs. These collaborations often lead to royalty-based agreements, allowing artists to earn a steady income from the use of their art in commercial ventures.

Market Access and Exposure:

Traditionally, Warli artists were limited to selling their art within their local communities or nearby markets. However, with commercialisation, their art has gained access to national and international markets through art galleries, online platforms, exhibitions, and art fairs.

For example, on January 26, 2022, Maharashtra’s Warli art was proudly showcased at the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi. The initiative, ‘Kala Kumbh – Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’, organised by the National Gallery of Modern Arts, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Defence, featured artwork by twenty Warli artists from Palghar district.

Warli artisans with their artwork at the Republic Day Parade 2022 (Image source: bestcurrentaffairs.com)

Exposure like this helps the Warli artists broaden their customer base, enabling them to reach a larger audience and sell their art at better prices.

Community Development: 

The economic benefits of Warli art’s commercialisation extend beyond individual artists. With increased tourism and market exposure, there is potential for economic growth in the entire tribal region. A fascinating example of this is Ganjad Village in Palghar district, Maharashtra, where a community of Warli artists sustains their tradition through artist residencies and live art shows.

A Village Home painted by Warli Painting at Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai (Image source: localguidesconnect.com)

Art-related events, workshops, and tourism around Warli art contribute to local businesses, hospitality services, and handicraft industries, leading to overall community development.

3. Artistic Revival Resulting from the Commercialisation of Warli Art:

The artistic revival resulting from the commercialisation of Warli art has had profound effects on both the art form itself and the cultural fabric of the Warli community. This resurgence has breathed new life into traditional artistic practices, contributing to the continuity of the art form and its enduring significance in contemporary times. Here are some key aspects of the artistic revival:

Rekindling Interest of Younger Generations:

With the growing commercial value and global appreciation of Warli art, there has been a resurgence of interest among the younger generation in the Warli communities. The allure of economic empowerment and recognition has sparked curiosity about their cultural heritage, leading them to seek a deeper understanding of their roots and traditional art forms.

Younger generation embracing their tribal art form (Image source: architecturaldigest.in)

Integration of Modern Tools and Techniques:

While the essence of Warli art remains steeped in its traditional form, the artistic revival has also embraced contemporary tools and techniques. Young artists are exploring ways to combine traditional practices with modern mediums like digital art, enabling them to adapt their art to evolving artistic expressions while staying true to the core principles of Warli art.

Diversification of Artistic Themes:

While traditional Warli art primarily depicted scenes from everyday tribal life, the artistic revival has encouraged artists to diversify their themes and subject matters.

Contemporary Warli artists are exploring broader narratives, encompassing environmental issues, social themes, and contemporary expressions while retaining the distinct style and storytelling aspects of the art form.

Commercialization of Warli Art
Third Eye Beats Covid – Aditi Ahuja (Image source: iccr.gov.in )

Vijay Mhase, the grandson of the esteemed Padma Shri awardee, Jivya Soma Mhase, shared how his artistic vision goes beyond traditional boundaries to embrace an international consciousness and often reflects global issues. His recent creations in Warli art brilliantly captured the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in India and across the world.

Cultural Exchange:

The commercialisation of Warli art has facilitated cultural exchange between the Warli community and artists, collectors, and art enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds. Collaborations and interactions with the global art community offer opportunities for artistic growth and innovation.

Commercialization of Warli Art
Cultural appreciation and exchange (Image source: jamestownsun.com)

For instance, in 2021, in New Delhi, the British Council, India, hosted a remarkable exhibition honoring crafts and exceptional craftsmanship. As part of India Craft Week’s third edition, this Warli exhibition highlighted the extraordinary works of creative master Jivya Soma Mhase. The exhibit, a collaboration between The Clay Foundation and Warli Artists, portrayed the evolution of Warli art and its significant connections in the world of crafts.

Such exchanges help foster cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for indigenous art and traditions.

Transmission of Knowledge and Skills:

Economic empowerment has motivated seasoned Warli artists to take on mentorship roles and share their expertise with aspiring artists. Traditional knowledge and techniques, which were once passed down through generations within the community, are now actively preserved through guided learning sessions and practical training.

Rooftop is one platform that is making this transmission of knowledge and skills possible. On the Rooftop app, you can register for daily workshops as well as Maestro Courses that open your world to the realm of Warli art. The Warli Art Maestro Course at Rooftop is in collaboration with the reputable Mhase Family, who have made immense contributions to bring Warli art to the forefront.

The Warli art Maestro course on the Rooftop app (Image source: Rooftop)
Commercialization of Warli Art
An online Warli art workshop on the Rooftop app (Image source: Rooftop)

The Negative Impact of Commercialisation of Warli Art

1. Cultural Dilution and Loss of Authenticity

Authenticity is a crucial aspect of cultural heritage, especially for indigenous art forms like Warli art, which hold deep spiritual and historical significance for the Warli tribal community. As commercialisation takes over, there is a potential compromise of the art form’s authenticity. Artworks might be produced without genuine cultural understanding and symbolism, reducing them to mere decorative items rather than representations of tribal life and rituals.

Cultural dilution refers to the gradual loss or weakening of the original cultural values, traditions, and significance of a particular cultural practice or art form. In the context of Warli art, the mass production and commercialisation of this traditional tribal art have brought one significant challenge: the risk of cultural dilution.

2. Mass Production Led Loss of Uniqueness

With the increased demand for Warli art in the global market, there has been a rise in mass production to meet consumer needs. While this allows for greater accessibility and affordability of Warli art, it also brings the risk of standardised and mass-produced pieces that lack the uniqueness and individuality found in traditional handcrafted artworks.

Commercialization of Warli Art
Mass-produced art pieces by machines threaten the authenticity of folk art (Image source: brief.creatives)

As per Niranjan Mahawar, a businessman in Raipur who holds a collection of tribal art, foreign demands destroyed any remaining uniqueness, reducing today’s artists to repetitive machines.  “Today the artist produces the same kind of piece of exact specifications over and over again. It has killed his freedom, and what is worse, he earns only the bare minimum. All this is being done in the name of promoting tribal art.”

Mahawar’s valid grievance against the corrupting impact of commercialisation uncovers a paradox. The business aspect has led to art’s degradation, yet without commercial promotion, artists’ talents would remain concealed from the world indefinitely.

3. Adopting Commercial Trends

To cater to a broader market and commercial trends, some artists may modify their art to appeal to a more extensive consumer base. This could lead to a departure from the traditional techniques and themes of Warli art, altering its authentic representation of tribal life and rituals.

As the demand for mass-produced Warli art grows, there may be increased pressure on local artisans to produce larger quantities of art, potentially compromising the time and attention needed for intricate detailing and traditional techniques. This could affect the livelihoods and artistic integrity of the artisans.

4. Erasure of Warli Artists

The commercialisation of Warli art may also attract external artists and designers who may not fully grasp the cultural significance and context of the art form. 

Poonam Chaure, a coordinator at a Warli-led NGO named AYUSH, stated that many individuals who are not from the Adivasi community are actively replicating Warli art these days in numerous settings. This can lead to cultural appropriation, where elements of Warli art are taken out of context and used for profit without proper acknowledgement or understanding of the culture from which they originate. Such overexposure in the commercial market can lead to the art being seen as a mere decorative element rather than a reflection of tribal life and spirituality.

Commercialization of Warli Art
An aged artisan making Warli art on a wall (Image source: Medium)

Another pressing issue resulting from commercialisation is the erasure of women Warli artists. Adivasi social worker Kirti Vartha remarked that with the onset of commercialisation, men started assuming the traditional role of women in creating Warli art. The women artists now focus on reclaiming the art form for women.

5. Unfair Compensation

The commercial success of Warli art has attracted opportunistic entities that might exploit the cultural heritage of the Warli tribal community. Some commercial ventures may appropriate the art without giving proper credit or ensuring fair compensation for the artists. This could be due to middlemen who take a significant cut of the earnings, leaving the artists with very little. This can contribute to the cycle of poverty and economic vulnerability within the community. 

Moreover, indigenous art forms like Warli are often not adequately protected by intellectual property laws. This can lead to the unauthorised use and reproduction of their artwork without providing any benefits to the original artists or their communities.

Conclusion

The commercialisation of Warli art has undeniably expanded its reach and global appreciation. While this can provide opportunities for the artists and their communities, it also raises concerns about authenticity and cultural dilution. Preserving the integrity of Warli art requires a delicate balance between commercial interests and responsible practices. By nurturing a respectful market and empowering the original creators, we can ensure that Warli art continues to thrive as a timeless expression of the Warli tribal community’s heritage. As consumers and enthusiasts, we hold the key to preserving the essence and soul of this remarkable tribal art form for generations to come. 

By Naomi Fargose

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