What Warli folklore says about the tribe


Veteran activist Pradip Prabhu’s talk gives a glimpse into the egalitarian nature of Warli tribes through their traditional tales

“Once upon a time, there was a kahankaar (storyteller), in search of someone to narrate his stories to. And a few villages away, there was an ahankaar (listener), in search of stories. Each set about to find the other…”

Pradip Prabhu’s voice floated in the open space at WeBe Design Lab, Nandanam. As he narrated stories integral to the Warli tribe culture, under the night sky, all that was missing was a campfire.

Here for the 14th edition of The Talk, organised by WeBe Design Lab, and into design and research, Pradip brought with him over three decades worth of experience of working with the Warli tribes in Dahanu, Maharashtra. The lawyer and activist has been at the forefront of the implementation of the Forest Rights Act — which helps provide tribal citizens the right to life and livelihood — through his organisation Kashtagiri Sangathana.

“I have worked alongside people from the Warli tribe for over 30 years. It was only some four-five years ago that they trusted me with their stories,” said Pradip. These holistic ancient tribal stories have been documented in his book Wisdom from the Wilderness, and now, he brought them to the audience at WeBe.

“The Warlis believe that without the ahankaar, there is no kahankar,” he explained. “They have an advanced notion of communication. A story is not just a story, it is the passing of energy from narrator to listener.”

What Warli folklore says about the tribe

Explaining how their society is more egalitarian, leaning towards a matriarchy, he narrated stories with feminist undertones. “In the Warlis, no woman can be married against her will, nor can she be forced to stay in a marriage. If a couple elopes and spends three days together, when they return to their homes, they can get married irrespective of their family’s wishes,” he said.

The concept of dowry is reversed and turned into ‘bride price’. “You are taking an able-bodied woman away from her family, so the man needs to pay a price for it. Earlier it used to be paddy or rice, now it is clothes or money,” he said. Weddings are conducted by a priestess dhaulerin, assisted by a group of suhasins.

The importance given to communality is another feature their stories reveal. “The idea of owning property or lands did not exist among them before the British rule,” he said, adding, “Children hunt together, learning from older children. And each child gets equal share of the hunt.”

The night ended with Pradip showing the audience Warli paintings on a pair of quilts . “Warli paintings are a theft of the art form from women. Most women are now isolated from the process,” he insisted. “Women would paint stories of the mother goddess using rice paste on the walls of their house, while singing.” The reason the stories have feminist tones is simple — many of them have been created by women, passed on orally from mother to child.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 5:50:16 AM |

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