Warli Tribal Art from remote Indian villages comes to the New York Jewish Community: An interview with Jacob Sztokman

By Robin Alexander

The Jewish community in New York City will soon be exposed to a culture that we have never had the opportunity to learn about before: Warli Tribal Art from remote villages of India. An organization called Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM), founded by my longtime friend Jacob Sztokman, with whom I worked years ago when he was a marketing manager in Israel, is bringing a collection of over 50 Warli paintings for a special exhibition next weekend in Manhattan. The art, which uses traditional materials and backgrounds with names such as “cow dung red” and “cow dung brown,” is part of the GPM mission to promote economic and cultural development among vulnerable populations in India.

Jacob’s story is also an interesting one: he used to work in marketing for a high-tech company in Israel, but years ago on a trip to India was so affected by seeing the poverty there, that he moved into the nonprofit world, and started Gabriel Project Mumbai. I recently caught up with Jacob, who still lives in Israel but spends much of his time in India, about the upcoming exhibition coming to New York City, about his experiences with this tribal group and about what he hopes to achieve with this work.

Robin Alexander: What is Warli Tribal Art?

Jacob Sztokman: India is a nation full of many tribes, many of which have been in existence for thousands of years. The Warli Tribe, which is centered outside of Mumbai in the Palghar district of the state of Maharashtra, dates back to 3000 BCE. Their culture is very nature-centric; it is an animistic community from the Adavassi tribal culture. They are very connected to the earth and to flora and fauna, and have an animated communal life around life cycles such as marriage, birth and death. They have a colorful body of rituals, music, art and stories. They believe that every natural, living thing has a soul. It’s very beautiful.

At the same time, they have a long history of being oppressed by colonial powers over the centuries. They were known as primitive or “backward people,” which is a heartbreaking reality considering the richness of their culture. Since Indian independence in 1947, the Indian government has taken steps to try to rectify that and protect the tribes through different forms of support and legislation.

From a distance, the art appears simple. They use geometric representations – such as two inverted triangles to represent a person. But the work is not simple at all. It is very detailed and intricate. Each symbol has layers of meaning. And the materials that they use for background comes from generations of knowledge and oral traditions.

This is a very unique exhibition, and I believe it is the first time that Warli art is being brought to the Jewish community. It is the first time our community is being exposed to this beautiful culture.

RA: How did you get involved with the Warli tribes in the remote villages?

JS: The GPM mission is about responding to global poverty. Actually, we are the only grass roots Jewish organization working in the slums and rural villages in India on development. As such, in order to look at long-term solutions for alleviating poverty, we have to look at the causes of poverty. And this is how we came to become involved with the Warli tribe.

If you want to understand the explosive growth of slums in Mumbai – for example, the Kalwa slum where we operate had 120,000 residents in 2012 and today has 200,000 – we need to find out where these residents are coming from and why. What we now know is that there is an influx of people who are having enormous difficulties in the villages and find themselves leaving their villages to find a better life in the slums. It’s often the case that they prefer not to leave – in the villages they have clean air, fresh food, space, families, communities, and histories. But issues of education, access to healthcare, and lack of water send people to the overcrowded cities.

So we decided to get to the root cause of this painful migration and see what needs to be done to make the villages more sustainable and secure. We began a whole series of initiatives – bringing schooling, medical services, and water technologies to the villages in order to develop rural life and strengthen families and communities.

RA: Why is an organization dedicated to alleviating poverty doing an art exhibition?

JS: In the villages in which we operate, there is a very proud and beautiful tradition of the Warli tribal art known throughout India. The culture is very rich in that many stories and myths have been passed down from generation to generation through dance, music, art and oral traditions. The art is not only visually beautiful but it also tells stories and teaches morals and ethics, ways to live your life and connect to the earth. And yet, it is not widely known outside of India at all. It is an enormous source of pride, joy and strength for the community. However, artists don’t have many avenues to promote their work and thus it is not yet a source of economic development for the community.

We believe that by helping promote this amazing art, we are doing a few key things. We are helping the artists get the exposure that they deserve, we are providing another well-deserved source of economic empowerment, and we are garnering international support for the community that will be used to support our development projects in education, healthcare, nutrition and water.

I feel that we are doing a service not only to the Warli tribe but also to the Jewish community in New York in that we are exposing them to this magnificent culture.

And of course, we are supporting the work of four Warli artists who have come together as a collective to show the world their art and traditions. This is a win-win situation for everyone!

RA: Do you have a favorite painting?

JS: There are several pieces depicting something called the Tarpa Dance. This is an incredibly powerful and passionate dance where men and women interlock arms and clasp them behind their backs as they dance and sing in spirals and in unison – without breaking the circle. I’ve seen this in India in real life, and the experience is very moving. Seeing the depictions of this dance on the canvas touches my heart in a very deep way. There is one piece which depicts the dance on a black background with color – it’s called the “Psychedelic Tarpa Dance” and is unlike most of the other pieces in the exhibition. It really stands out.

RA: What makes this a Jewish initiative?

JS: GPM is continuing a strong Jewish tradition of helping people who need a little boost to get out of difficult circumstances. Here there is a community that is in need, a community that needs assistance and is asking the world to care. So we are responding to that. We are going into 20 villages and encouraging growth, education to those who are under-served. This is a fundamentally Jewish thing to do – that is, to look after the people who are in vulnerable situations and need support.

We focus on three things which we believe are basic human rights: health, education and nutrition. We started with a focus on children, but we realized that children’s well-being is connected to the entire community. So we decided to go deeper and help the farmers develop sustainable water technologies such as rainwater harvesting, and to help the community by building community centers and doing projects like this one, which is about supporting the local artists.

Also, we bring Jewish young adult volunteers through the JDC-Entwine program to work with underserved communities in both the city slums and the villages. This is vital because the community gets an understanding of assistance from outside, where they are getting the message that they matter, and that other people care about them. It’s also important for the volunteers because they get a first hand understanding of global poverty and international development, as well as understanding the burning issues of food security, accessibility of health care, child labor, agriculture, women’s empowerment, and more. So what we’re doing is not just a service to the communities in India. It is also a service to the worldwide Jewish community in that we are providing first-hand experience with some of the most crucial issues facing humanity today.

RA: What would you like from the Jewish community?

JS: Come and see the exhibition! Come to the event and connect with these beautiful pieces of art. Purchase the art. Learn about Warli culture. And understand what GPM is doing and join us! Ask us questions, find ways to get involved or support us. And of course contact me with any questions. I am always happy to talk to people about what we are doing.

The exhibition of Warli Tribal Art will take place on Sunday May 21, 7:00-9:30 PM and Monday May 22, 7:00-9:30 PM at the home of Sarit and Martin Kaminer, 345 W 54th St, New York between 8th and 9th. For more info, visit: www.facebook.com/events/1329203030526590/ or contact info@gabrielprojectmumbai.org