Jawhar's artists turn (sk)inward

Nov 18, 2018, 07:30 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

A youth group from the tribal hamlets of Jawhar is using Warli body tattoos to draw attention to native art and boost tourism

Jawhar's artists turn (sk)inward

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreApart from being a day-long picnic spot near Jawhar hill station, the Khadkhad dam site is not otherwise, considered a tourist attraction of historical significance. Built in 2010, the dam and its backwaters in Dhaparpada have a raw appeal, as against the charm of spruced up locations. But what Khadkhad lacks in vintage value, it makes up as an emerging green vantage spot for Warli art lovers, mostly visitors from Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Surat, who want the native Warli art motifs tattooed on their bodies.

Mumbai-based tattoo artist Heerkani Sangram Bhosle tattooing Warli artist Ankush Tukaram Telawade. Bhosle has held similar demo sessions, using Warlis as subjects, to popularise Warli tattoos
Mumbai-based tattoo artist Heerkani Sangram Bhosle tattooing Warli artist Ankush Tukaram Telawade. Bhosle has held similar demo sessions, using Warlis as subjects, to popularise Warli tattoos

A three-year-old Jawhar-based youth group, Jawhar Tourism, has been using Warli body tattoos to attract clients for homestays, musical events, treks, heritage walks, yoga sessions and forest camp nights. In their survey of the most popular tourist packages for Jawhar waterfall and dam sites, tattoos ranked as the most sought-after component. Warli tattoo drawing sessions against the backdrops of Kalmandvi waterfall, Jaisagar dam and Shirpamal precinct have gained currency as a long-term tool of engagement. Jawhar Tourism has leveraged the Warli tattoo idea for a range of occasions, be it the recent October 18 Darbari Dusshera festive pageant or the ongoing overnight lakeside camps in the so-far nondescript Dhaparpada. Plans are also on to involve more traditional Warli painters for the upcoming famed Bohada festival of masks, so as to draw on the skills of native Warlis, whose ancestors have painted on the walls of thatched mud huts.

For the last three years, Jawhar Tourism has been using Warli body tattoos to attract visitors and tourists to the tribal heartland
For the last three years, Jawhar Tourism has been using Warli body tattoos to attract visitors and tourists to the tribal heartland

Ink to engage
Although now a buzzing 100-year-old municipal council, Jawhar has many hamlets (padas) inhabited by scheduled tribes like Warlis, Koknas, Thakurs and Mahadev Kolis. The Warlis are distinct because they adorn their walls with a set iconography; their graphic vocabulary - circle, triangle, square - has been reflected in gift merchandise, apparel and everyday use objects. Works of famed Warli painters like the late Jivya Soma Mashe, and currently, Rajesh Chaitya Wangad, have popularised the folk style in art circles too. This has also placed remote Jawhar and Dahanu on Mumbai's art map.

Leading Jawhar Tourism's tattoo initiative is Vaibhav Gholap, a 28-year-old Jawhar-born production engineer and part-time lecturer at the Government Polytechnic in Vikramgad. His passion for biking and travel across Maharashtra and Goa set him thinking about tourism promotion possibilities that remained unexecuted in his erstwhile princely state of Jawhar. As he stumbled upon tattoo studios and body piercing centres on Goa's scenic coastal shores, he was gripped with the idea of using a tattoo - permanent and temporary - as a tool to engage and entertain tourists. "People like to carry on their bodies, a part of what they witness as a tourist. A Warli hut or the Tarpa or a Warli marriage procession is an identifiable feature in Warli art, which I thought people would want to display," says Gholap, who has currently employed a handful of young college-going painters to draw tattoos during his events.

For the last three years, Jawhar Tourism has been using Warli body tattoos to attract visitors and tourists to the tribal heartland

Most tattoo-makers double up as tour guides. For instance, Vishal Shinde, is a 21-year old zoology student (a Kokna by birth); he operates from the Jambhulvihir vicinity. He offers services for late night camps, as college takes precedence otherwise. But Rajendra Mahale, 36, a Warli by birth, is a full-time Warli painter, who until now had devoted time to wooden artefacts; he wants to try out body tattoos as a new platform. Mahale has reached out to other painters in Khuded village, where artists are still hesitant to draw tattoos on human hands or faces. He feels if Warli art was applied well over the years on greeting cards, coasters, diaries, stoles, kurtas and sarees, it is bound to embrace the gamut of tattoos too.

Why get the tattoo?
Jawhar Tourism is currently privy to a heterogeneous customer base, which wants to be inked. For Joshi Bedekar (Thane) College BMM student Dhaval Dandekar, 18, it was a "green tourism" event that became a pivot for the tattoo; Yoga trainer Aidan Vorolieff, an American who teaches at the Govardhan School, Galtare village near Wada, was attracted to Warli motifs because it offered a window to art that dates back to 10th century AD.

Adventure tour operator Vikram Budhavalekar, 38, had another reason for getting tattooed - he wanted his customers to identify with the Thane and Palghar district peaks they scale together. The most interesting story emerges from the studio of Mumbai-based celebrity tattoo artist Heerkani Sangram Bhosle, who joined Jawhar Tourism in a recent workshop on Warli themed-body art. She feels it is time that Indians displayed native folk art on their bodies. "Warli tattoos, or any other tribal art representation, speaks of our emotional investment in the places we inhabit or travel through. Also, tattoos are meditative in nature, they heal people by associating a memory with the piece drawn on the body."

Bhosle's Tattoowaali Studio has offered training to Warli artists; the latest workshop is slated on November 23. She feels tattoos do not enjoy the social acceptability they deserve; but the Warli art theme (with proven Indian credentials) makes tattoos more indigenous and "less of a dismissive urban fad".

Jawhar Tourism recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Nashik-based HPT Arts College, whereby tourism industry skills will be imparted to Jawhar youth. The MoU encompasses language skills and online training because Gholap and team need to keep tabs on the online and offline reviews of their tattoo model. They need to monitor their client behaviour, especially in the context of demands for permanent tattoos, which effectively memorialise the Jawhar connect.

Warli tattoos, like Warli art, is formulaic and ceremonial. It depicts themes like geometrically aligned stick figures tilling the land, women carrying the farm produce or the tarpa dance in progress. Artists have used the warli idiom to express loss of livelihood, urban migration and shift in farming. One hopes Jawhar tattoo painters add another dimension to the art in their use of acrylic skin-friendly colours. Gholap likes to calls it "make-in-India" body art.

Sumedha Raikar is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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