Convergence of 1000s of years of Tribal traditions and wisdom laced with urban de-cultured and yet necessary ways of living to some solutions that might hold the key…all in heart of amchi Mumbai..
Being a Mumbaikar is perhaps an adrenaline packed game in itself. And with that adrenaline punch, comes many choices of how we can choose to live. A privilege not available in many other cities in India.
On one of the Sundays, I chose to go ‘Hallu Hallu’ for a different kind of adventure. An adventure which took me to the heart of Mumbai into a green patch, often called the lungs of Mumbai city – Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SNGP). And this was not the first time I came here, since SNGP has a pull for many kinds of day adventures. But there were some carefully curated aspects of this Sunday that triggered my curiosity – ‘Dahisar river’; Warli pada; Warli art; Warli tribes; tribal food; forest walk; tribal home visits…and amongst these, I knew I will find my ‘chulha story’
This walk or rather experience is conceptualised and curated by my friend Aslam who is the co-founder of Hallu Hallu https://gohalluhallu.wordpress.com/ along with Gopal MS, a towering and absolutely loved human amongst those whose eyes see and capture stories about Mumbai just by blinking. Aslam @bombay_ka_shana @gohalluhallu and Gopal @Mumbaipaused are institutes in themselves when it comes to observing, documenting and telling stories about nuances of life in and around Mumbai through their photographs and instagram handles.
‘Dahisar River Walk’ is Hallu Hallu’s one of the most popular walks as it has something for most people interested in taking a slower pace in life. Through this walk, one gets a chance to see the Warli Pada inside SNGP and also meet the proponents of the famous Warli art. Not making this about the art, but the artist, meeting Dinesh Barap @barapdinesh, one of the very few true and remaining Warli artists living in Mumbai was one of my main interests.
This interest was also partly because of my occasional association with Rang De (https://rangde.in/), a social investment platform based on a peer to peer lending model that helps access finance for those marginalized groups where working capital is a bottleneck.
The idea to create a collaborative space for Hallu Hallu and Rang De emerged through the common purpose of supporting traditional and native art forms from a livelihood and sustainability perspective. Rang De has been creating bespoke models based on the requirement of finances or capital by artists in order to create a regular income model. Some of their such funds are Artisans Fund (https://rangde.in/the-artisan) and West Bengal Handicraft Artisan Fund.
Interestingly, Warli Art or motifs being one of the more popular and commercialized ‘formats’ of art which is reproduced in almost all possible product lines, very little is known about the original style of practicing of this art. And its importance in story telling and showcasing of the Warli Tribe’s lifestyle.
This has been Hallu Hallu and Aslam’s objective in curating these experiences that offers the city or urban dwellers of Mumbai an opportunity to meet, observe, interact and learn from the tribal communities like the Warlis of Mumbai, in their native settings.
But it also throws up an interesting juxtaposition of a tribal community’s life and living ways in the heart of Mumbai city. For most of us, the word ‘Tribal’ conjures up alluring images of humans faraway, tucked away into the deepest of forests with minimal clothing, face paints and weapons. So when one sees them wearing clothes like us and living in almost pucca houses with mobiles phones and bikes, few of them having Dish antenna and other amenities, there are some questions about what does ‘Tribal’ mean. Tribal in Hindi is adivasi and it simply means first residents on that land. And this is true of tribals living inside SGNP.
Aslam leads his walks with anecdotes and interesting stories stemming from his deep and long term interaction with these communities and also his inherent knowledge about their ethnography. This he combines with facts around current climate related impact on both land and the rivers and the communities living within vicinity.
Aslam’s photo documentation of the Dahisar river and other rivers of Mumbai city (Poisar river, Oshiwara river, Ulhas river and Mithi river) highlights the situation about flood plains and questionable materials being used for retaining walls and hence annual flooding situation that sometimes creates partial and other times, complete disruption for these communities.
Then there is a flurry of interesting historical data that Aslam unleashes which goes back to 2000 years of Sopara trading zone, Koli communities’ cooperative society, Kanheri Caves and their importance during the trade and how they were being used as Educational centers by the Buddhist monks.
As a Mumbaikar, who is generally so preoccupied with the fast pace of life, one wonders if this is a fairy tale of some other land as opposed to our neighborhood, just round the corner or that Mumbai city can boast of such a rich historical heritage.
So while slowly traversing through the lush green, but crowded SGNP, Aslam takes his group right into the Dahisar river, a privilege available to people like him who are true friends of the adivasis and all things tribals. And just like that, we reach the Warli pada. Warli pada is a small group of homes where part of the Warli tribes are living their lives trying to take what this megacity has to offer and yet struggling to hold onto the remnants of their tribal culture. It’s difficult to gauge how their life is – but what meets the eye is not a very pretty picture. Struggle with access to clean energy for cooking and lighting is not consistent and almost not available; no real and sustainable sources of income and occupation; no stronghold over the land for agriculture due to animal conflict, dwindling natural resources and several other factors beyond the scope of this article; and since we are centering around Warli art, almost no proponents of this mesmerizing art form in its true spirit.
As part of the day, we were joined by our co-host, Dinesh Barap who is one of the few ‘exponents’ of this art form within this geography. As Aslam points out – ‘Warli’ is a way of living, it’s a language, it’s a culture and it’s from here that this art form is derived. Dinesh is an extremely shy individual and, like a true artist, not very talkative. But when he does talk, he belts out wisdom and information about the forests, the flora and fauna, medicinal applications of forest species, co-existence with the wild. It’s evident from his talk that the Warlis are still living in such harmony with nature through an exchange and not one way plundering of resources for selfish gains.
Before Dinesh shared his gift of Warli with us, we had the privilege of having the most amazing tribal food served on the banana leaf. The meal was simple, fresh and full of flavors and nutrition.
One of the things I have learnt while working with and observing the tribal communities is about their food habits. They generally grow and eat food as per the season cycle. And hence their food is always in sync with what our bodies would require at that time of the year. This is also the key to their general good health and how they are able to live so harmoniously with nature without having to exploit it. So our lunch meal consisted of Ragi (Millet) bhakri, rice, dal (pulses) with moringa, bamboo vegetable with shrimps (seasonal) and a green seasonal vegetable. Not only was the meal delicious but it was perfect for the rainy afternoon. And when it came to food, naturally my curiosity about how it was cooked led me to their kitchen.
Here is another juxtaposition about tribal food and its flavors. Some of the dishes had the wood fired fragrance and flavors that cannot be achieved through any other kind of cooking. Once inside their kitchen, I had my set of questions about LPG, chulha, firewood and all aspects of cooking practices.
There are two lines of assumptions that I considered before I met the women who were cooking for us – ‘All their cooking must be happening on LPG since they are Mumbai’ or ‘ it would be split between LPG and traditional mud or three stone chulahs’. It was of course the latter. So while we can leave aside the flavors from fire wood based cooking, it is sheer unaffordability of LPG consistently that pushes them to rely on firewood based cooking. In a megacity like Mumbai, accessing a gas cylinder on a regular basis is not a bottleneck, aspiration and intention to use a cleaner and more convenient cooking method like LPG is also not absent, yet these tribal HHs continue to cook their meals in a smoky environment. The only ray of hope being these chulahs are outside the house in a verandah. So, for me, this becomes an interesting dilemma to ponder about – ‘Can we as a collective ever be able to solve the issue of rudimentary methods of cooking?’
So I promised some of these women to come back after the monsoon season to demonstrate our Rocket Stove based improved mud cookstoves as an option to at least reduce the smoke and dependency on firewood for their daily and community cooking needs while emphasizing the need to use LPG as much as they can possibly afford to.
Now, connecting threads with Rang De’s model of access to finance for improving and sustaining the livelihoods for such communities. Even if the solution or intervention is available to access, it’s the continuous affordability that eventually breaks down the cycle of use. Almost everywhere in India and even other parts of the world, this narrative is consistent. The moment there is a gap in ability to earn consistent income, marginal HHs resort to marginal means of survival including use of stone chulahs or kerosene lamps or even burning bundles of firewood.
Rang De is addressing this in two strong ways – making it very simple for marginal users to seek a loan or capital to strengthen his or her income generating abilities and making it even more simpler for social investors like you and me to start investing in this underserved sections of our community with a denomination as less as Rs 100. In order to facilitate ease of borrowing for a Rang De works with Impact Partners who are generally grass roots Not for profits and rural/ social enterprises working directly with such borrowers either directly or indirectly.
Artists like Dinesh have no consistent means of earning income through his art. Traditionally and even now, an artist like him is called upon to paint a wall in the house of a family where a wedding has to take place. This sacred place is called – ‘Lagna Chowk’. In earlier times, this work was being done by married women of the tribe and that’s how Dinesh learnt this from his grandmother. Now, he is one of the very few individuals in his tribe, who are skilled at doing this important work before the wedding can take place. He often gets called to paint the ‘Lagna Chowk’ and travels to other Warli settlements in Aarey Forests; Palghar and Dahanu.
In return for this wall based masterpiece, Dinesh gets rice, tomato, local alcohol and some other consumables as a barter. This is of course in line with the traditional barter system which worked efficiently as the needs were far less. Now, this rice cannot pay the mobile and fuel bills, or even pay for school related expenditures. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that art forms like Warli are getting diminished and separated from their practitioners, for its a heart wrenching choice between hours spent in creating art or finding ways to earn money to survive (and not thrive).
Another fascinating aspect of Warli art form is the story telling through its motifs. One look at the wall, and it feels like how a beautiful forest ecosystem would look from a bird’s eye view.
The Sun, The Moon are Apex beings in the paintings, along with Tribe’s Elders who are revered as Gods – For Dinesh says, ‘Nobody has seen what God looks like’; so we consider our Elders as our Gods. Kind of reminds me of the anthem song by Joan Osborne and later made famous by Alanis Morissette – ‘What if God was one of us?’ – An existential question that stumps many of us and also the adivasis.
Then their motifs – each having a powerful connection to the life of Adivasis – A triangle to depict Mountain (scared); Leopard God- Wagho Ba; Green God who resides in trees; Palmyra trees and Swallows dancing around it; paddy plantation with flooded fields; harvest; deers, elephants; tortoise; cattle; river; stones; flowers…all find a place in Warli art…because all these elements are synonymous with why we cannot exist without their presence, the opposite though might not be true. Let’s also acknowledge that a Warli impression on a cup or a pillow cover is not a Warli in its truest form, for Warli is found on the walls of a tribal household or on the stones that are painted for pleasure.
We wrapped up the day with Dinesh teaching us basics of Warli motifs and all of us painted a stone we picked up from the river. The beauty and simplicity of it all blew my mind and I kept wondering that if we know it all, then why this paradox of survival and development vs harmonious and collective living?
For now, a day with Hallu Hallu and investing a small pocket change through Rang De for artists like Dinesh and his community might help us move an inch in the direction that seems about right. As for me, I continue to walk my path of one rocket chulha for one kitchen at a time – for someone needs to remain true to David’s spirit in this world of ‘Goliaths’.
Images courtesy Go Hallu Hallu team
About the author
Nitisha is the Founder & Director of Smokeless Cookstove Foundation that works with communities such as adivasis of Warli Pada to create awareness about clean energy and various livelihood linkages connected to clean energy. Her NGO teaches such communities the skill of making an improved mud cookstove model from naturally available materials based on Rocket Stove Technology to help them reduce drudgery emanating from rudimentary cooking methods.