Drawing from life: The Vayeda brothers are taking Warli in a new direction
The brothers, Warli artists from rural Maharashtra, painted the larger-than-life mural that greeted India Art Fair visitors in Delhi last week. They’re giving the folk art a new spin: tradition fired up by activism
Sprawled across a canvas 132 ft by 40 ft were shapes that could have been leaves, plants, flowers, birds flying in a limitless blue expanse. The entrance to the recently concluded India Art Fair (February 9 to 12) was a breathtaking Warli mural that became a crowd-puller, a crowd-stopper, a hashtag on Instagram.
The work was created by Tushar Vayeda, 35, and Mayur Vayeda, 30, also known as the Vayeda Brothers, as a contemporary take on the Warli folk painting tradition from Maharashtra. Titled Forests of the Future, it marked the brothers’ first digital art work, made by remastering high-resolution images with a software program.
The response has been “very overwhelming, like a dream come true,” says Tushar Vayeda. “Our timelines are filled with Instagram tags and stories.”
This was particularly thrilling because the young men were at the India Art Fair last year, as visitors, invited there by the gallerist Anubhav Nath of Ojas Art, who represents them. “Walking around, we had hoped that someday we too would exhibit here. It was magical when the India Art Fair team reached out to us, inviting us for the artist-in-residence programme. During the residency, they proposed that we do the façade for them,” Mayur Vayeda says.
The story of the two men from Ganjad village in Palghar district is a heartening one overall, a tale of an ancient art form being lent a contemporary idiom through extensive research, reinvention, reimagination, artistic skill and effort. It’s also a tale of technology giving a leg-up to art creators. Social-media platforms, particularly Instagram, have helped the Vayeda Brothers take their art beyond the borders of the state and country.
They got their first big break in 2015, when French collector, critic and curator Hervé Perdriolle discovered their work online. Perdriolle has since been a regular patron, collecting as well as exhibiting and selling their works across Europe.
Getting their work online wasn’t easy, the brothers say, laughing. “We had a lot of connectivity issues in our village. Until a couple of years ago, if we had to google something, we’d climb a nearby hill or a tall tree,” Tushar says. “Even now, if we have to transfer a big file, we have to go to the nearest town, Dahanu, which is 17 km away.”
Nath discovered their art on Instagram too, in 2016. By that point, the boys had been Warli artists for about nine years. Born into the community, they’d been practising the art much longer, since they were children, helping their aunt, the artist Minakshi Vayeda, with her works on cloth.
The Vayeda Brothers like to remind collectors and viewers of their art that Warli is a ritual practice, not a decorative one. Works are created to mark events such as festivals, rituals, weddings and harvests. What they’re doing is also turning it into a language of cultural memory, and cultural documentation.
“The Warli language doesn’t have a script. We have always seen Warli painting as our script. We see all these forms and figures as the alphabet, and we have developed our own grammar to put it all together,” says Tushar.
This approach has the added advantage of distinguishing their work from that of the hundreds of Warli artists using the same colours, forms and source material. In order to find new elements of the community’s history and culture to focus on and document, the brothers – since the early years of their practice – have also relied on field work. They travel frequently across the Palghar and Thane districts, spending time with senior members of the community, discussing lesser-known folk stories, asking questions about the minutest elements of old Warli artworks.
“Every little event in the community is important for us to witness, to learn about and then transform into knowledge preserved on cowdung-treated canvas,” says Mayur.
They break with form to create intricate pieces and miniature works too. While Warli artists typically paint one story on one canvas, they break stories into “chapters” and create works in series. “In most of our paintings, you will not find the triangular human shapes either. Sometimes, we prefer minimal art, made up of only dots and lines and sometimes scratches,” Tushar says.
Since they paint together, it can sometimes be hard to translate two imaginations onto one canvas, they admit. As a rule, they discuss the theme and map the canvas, then start work from opposite ends of it.
Recently, they created a work titled Dhartari: The Creation of the World, a collection for the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. To paint the famous story about the creation of the world, which is part of Warli folklore, they needed 18 different canvases.
The India Art Fair mural was part of a new direction the brothers’ art is taking: local activism. As part of their Jungle Project, they have been working on art pieces that promote the preservation of the forests of their village. “We want to restore our village to the way it was when we were kids. We are painting a lot of the flora and fauna that’s disappearing in the Sahyadri ranges too,” Mayur says.
In Ganjad, they also set up a studio in 2013 that is open to everyone with an interest in Warli. Next up is a Warli-themed creative centre for children. “There are legends and stories that were not painted on any canvas. These are disappearing. We’re putting all this on canvas to make it accessible to the next generation, so they can understand their culture better,” says Mayur.
Meanwhile, at the fair, Ojas Art Gallery showcased the brothers’ series, Kernels of Hope – which depict forests, birds, flora and fauna, seeds, leaves, cranes and human figures – and almost everything on display was sold, at prices ranging from ₹2 lakh to ₹8 lakh.
Later this year, the brothers are scheduled to exhibit their work in Berlin, Brussels and Tokyo. The next theme they plan to work on is a story of the divine: How we found our gods.