Monday, September 23, 2013

Geez it’s the Streaked Laughing thrush

After the breakup of Babblers a substantial chunk came under Laughingthrush. Streaked Laughing thrushes (Garrulax lineatus) are common in Himalayan foothills and are easy to observe, foraging the undergrowth mostly along the jungles, more so, as they are not unduly concerned about human presence and go on with their chore with absolute ease, so much so you start to get this lurking feeling ‘geez am I not intruding into someone’s privacy here!!’  

Warli: the painter tribes  
When we imagine tribes in popular culture one reference that predominates is Warli painting. These paintings interestingly were done by Waarli women as part of festivities on the wall and floor. During festivals (specifically Gauri festival) women keep fasts, and through the day indulge in these paintings as part of devotion, its generally ritual bound and not for worship. Though seemingly simple these exquisite paintings are sophisticated. The drawing includes mostly lines that join to create triangles and squares (in depicting the divine the triangles don’t intersect unlike for humans). “The woman painters have an exceptional sense of fantasy and magic. In recent years they were given handmade paper and asked to paint as they desired. The results were paintings of strange significance. A tiny wrinkled lady created landscapes of uprising trees, painted in varied tones of white on an earth colour background…There was in the paintings primeval tree, knowing each tree was alive, creating a luminous light filled world of splendid trees, hundred branched with outstretched leaves…In another painting, the old Warli woman had painted a canvas of forest trees in shrill tones of red against a background of muted earth tones. The trees filled the canvas, elongated forms creating the loneliness and the secret spaces of forests. The fine vibrant leaves of the trees arose towards the sun, forming a fragile tracery –delicate and tender. Two of the trees were drawn with heavy hanging fruit, accentuating the fragility of the surrounding trees. The number of humans and animals and birds had increased; men carried burdens, but they were still free to gaze with wonder at the rising trees. The uprising immensity of the trees and the smallness and insignificance of man and animal created the mood of the painter. In a corner, out of proportion to men and animal, waited a brooding brilliant red spider, the symbol of unspeakable one -Thakramal Chatri- the great malignant spider, who in tribal legend straddles across the path under a dark sky waiting for man, a symbol of evil and of the primordial terrors that lurk in the primeval forest as in the subconscious of man.” That was none other than Pupul Jayakar (in The Earth Drum). Pupul Jayakar was an institution, quite an incredible lady. Another Warli painting describes “the environment has been mutilated. Trees have been cut, houses built, labour has entered the lives of people. Men pull carts, old men appear bent, holding sticks. In the emptiness of the centre where the trees have been cut, is a great malignant spider’s web. Civilization has destroyed the forests and the inner life of tribal man”. (Pupul Jayakar doesn’t need an introduction; she is one person I really admired, absolutely brilliant. What an amazing lady, her writings are also meticulous and detailed. She was an institution builder in the mould of Salim Ali, Rukmani Devi Arundale, KCS Panikker, Vikram Sarabhai, SS Bhatnagar, JRD Tata, MS Swaminathan, Varghese Kurian, Ela Bhatt and many more) 

 I must add here that this level of deep sensitivity seems to be lacking in recent Warli paintings that I noticed, it gives impression of factory produce driven by market gradients. With demand for Warli painting increasing and commercial consideration predominating what was once turf of Warli women has now been appropriated by men, and very unfortunately women now mostly play a subsidiary role. The government when encouraging artforms should be aware of these factors and must favour original creators of these arts, rather than market driven patriarchy.   

What further add to the interest of Warli art is that a Warli artist must conceptualize the final image in her mind and once the process start there cannot be any mistake or retracing, so each stroke is well thought of, a control over space and composition.  This is because Warli painting was originally not meant to be enclosed within a frame but used the wall as a stretching canvas. I was watching Wanshya Bhujad, a Warli painter (who is polio afflicted and teaches in a school. Another picture herein is of Sandip Bhoir, showcasing his art in his hut). The lines he drew were magical; it was not only elegant but was part of a narration that the image wanted to convey. It may interest us to know that Warli painting tradition traces its origin from the prehistoric painting that can be seen at Bimbetika (visit One of the most popular dances of Warlis is Tarpa dance, which find mention in many of their painting. Tarpa is wind instrument made out of Gourd. I was at Tribal museum in Silvassa. Look at this exquisite placing of Tarpa on wall with Waarli art. If anyone across the world wants to showcase tribal art this is a definitive reference. It is one of the most attractive displays I have seen in recent times. On an afternoon walk we bumped into Ganpath who was busy making Tarpa, it is quite an exact construction that needs lots of concentration to produce the requisite tenor from rudimentary materials. He demonstrated his skill with the instrument for us. 
The main deity of Warli is Vagyadevta, an image of tiger, as they once lived in the fear of these wild animals. Other gods includes Kansari (food god), Gauturi (cattle god), Dhartheri (earth god) –all these being sister deities. The list of gods is rather long but I was fascinated with one Bombya taral –a deity with machine gun!! This is a protector god and previously had bow and arrow. The inclusion of these latest can also be seen in painting like for instance vehicles, aircrafts so on (the picture herein is cricket playing, that I found drawn on the school wall). They include what is observed, so are not really tied to any particular vision or traditional constraints and so are vibrant in that sense, must add without losing any aesthetic sense or basic matrix of the craft.  I guess stricter views exist in social systems that are hierarchal, and rigidity is expression of interest groups, it generally is detrimental. Lack of sensible innovations makes it an anachronism, devoid of vibrancy; also the intent clearly lacks empathy. Though preservation is important but it shouldn’t be to stultify but to evolve. 

Muslair Dongar Devta is another of god that inhabits the hills -a rather pointed mountain you will not miss while you travel from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, is representation of this deity, also referred to as Mahalakshmi.  Interesting view here is that all the reference to hindu gods are seen as claim of proto Hinduism. The theory is that Waarli gods are precursor to hindu gods, indeed it could have been appropriated. It was clarified to me that what is kept in Warli huts as Ram aur Lakshman ka roop was actually existent much before, so could be other way round! So if Aryans came around 10,000BC, the Ramayana is surely much older, which must have been the tribal folklore.  It is very much conceivable that what is described as Hinduism is amalgamation of these smaller myths and tales, some got prominence while others remain local.  Lord Ram from this standpoint can be conceived as a Warli hunter.
Warli inhabit the region between Maharashtra and Gujarat, and Dadra Nagar Haveli, but the heaviest concentration is in northern Thane. Like most tribal groups there is no hierarchy between the clans. The term Warli (or Varli) seems to be derived from varal –a small patch of cultivated land and means an uplander (Wilson 1876). Others connect it to Varalat, the sixth of ancient Konkans. There is no definite view. I was talking to one of the tribe members and he asserts that warl is ash that is obtained by burning flour, cowdung and dry leaves mixture which is used as fertilizer, therefore Warli. The same base is used on the paper for Warli painting.  

The language they speak is Warli -an Indo-Aryan language that resembles Marathi, they are quite conversant in Marathi and Gujarati. Their primary and traditional occupation is agriculture, and fond of music and dance that is deeply rooted in folk tales. Warlis have a history of political involvement and mobilization, having launched a successful movement for abolition of serfdom as early as in 1940s.
My stay was arranged at a tribal school dormitory in Aine, Dahanu, run by Grammangal trust, interestingly the school is not Patshala but Muktshala. I like that! 

Post script: The Tribal Museum at Silvassa is rather small and has exhibits with write-ups. There is a mention to Kathodi tribes as “samaj vyavastha me sabse nichla sthan” (bottom rung of social system ladder). Since when have anthropologist’s taken social prejudices for facts? I lodged my protest at the visitor’s book (I rarely do these since I get panicked about spellings so on and so restrict to a word or two, but this time I was infuriated). I don’t know how likes of Andre Beteille distinguish between facts and prejudice during ‘field research’, I guess going by MN Srinivas’s worldview it will have to be dominant nonsense. So much so for cuteypie referred to as objectivity by sociologist!! 
From my scribble pad…

Drop by drop, word by word

In the distance, the thunder claps and frantic birds.
The platter of rain has wiped the languor
of the tree in a hurry.
Dislodged from its haven the beetle struggles and drowns.
Hapless mantis is relentlessly pounded.
Dainty pansy fought invain.
Drop by drop the puddle trickles to smother
unwarned ants and other dwellers. 
From my window the rain is a prose
falling delicately on my lap
word by word.
Outside it’s a battle.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lark among the wild flowers

It was quite a pleasant surprise to see Malabar Lark nibbling among the mist enveloped flower bed of Kaas. He didn’t see me nor did I see him, it was while I was looking far ahead into the hill that a slight movement few feet away alerted his presence. So next, about half an hour or so, I had my eyes following this bird, though he noticed me but by that time we were in tolerating-each-other’s-presence terms.

Malabar Crested Lark (Galerida malabarica) is found along the plains through the Western Ghats. Must add it is difficult to classify Larks, as also the Pipits. Close examination of picture one has taken is needed in most cases. 

Earth full of flowers

Kaas plateau is an incredible sight, spread across 1000 odd hectares of undulating plain that burst into myriad colour as some 450 species of plants flower during 2-3 weeks of August and September. It is a UNESCO Biodiversity World Heritage site.  Many of the plants are endemic and critically endangered. It is a unique place as the plateau is formed of basalt and is covered in thin layer of soil, not more than an inch or so, thus the plants in the region are typically ‘herbaceous’ that is like grasses. Small shrubs and trees are located at the periphery of the plateau. Due to uneven surface at some places puddles are created adding to the richness in biodiversity. 

Kaas Plateau, or locally referred to as Kaas pataar, is located about an hour's drive from Satara city. Kaas is from Kaasa tree –the South Indian Marble tree, Elaeocarpus glandulosus. Uncontrolled tourism has become a serious threat, during peak season it sees thousands of people visiting.. The problem here is unlike the much famous ‘Valley of flowers’ in Uttranchal –which needs arduous trekking, Kaas easy accessibility, add to it major cities like Pune and Mumbai at few hours distance. Regulating visitors is in the anvil. In the meanwhile I would suggest visitors to take a stroll on the left part as you enter the plateau. The right side, along the Car parking, is teeming with people, though many people do closely observe the flowers and so on but some do create a racket, with children trampling across. The left side of the plateau is a quiet groovy place, when I was here there wasn’t a soul till the end of the sight. Not seeing too many Homo sapiens is such a relief. Nothing can be more pleasant than earth full of flowers, and you in midst of it. And yes while you enjoy the sight be careful the stones are slippery and yes the isolated stretches end in steep and very scary drops.

Wild flowers have their own charm and when you see millions of these spread across, in a multicoloured carpet, covering the hill it is ecstatic. For those inclined to knowing wild flowers intimately, Issac Kehimkar’s “Common Indian Wild Flowers” (incidentally I bought it at Biodiversity meet in Hyderabad last year) is a good book to start with. Jamaican Bluespike, a very common wildflower that we tend to miss, tops my list of favorites. 

From my scribble pad… 

Once, while trying to negotiate a thorny bush
an unfurling wildflower
in its brief moment of gaiety
held me.
A hesitant instance.
Something quite frank though uncertain.
Very sublime in its demeanor.
A blur.