Downtown Durham Inc


“The Art of the Warli in Durham” is a project that involved members of the Durham community in the co-creation of a massive mural in the style of Warli – an indigenous art form from Western India that uses minimalistic forms and vibrant patterns to reflect everyday lives and events. The artists offered a series of live-streamed lessons in which participants learned basic Warli painting techniques and contributed sketches to be involved in the mural’s design. The final mural captures the dynamic nature of Durham’s landscapes as told by its people – From our rural tobacco-growing past, to our vibrant urban present.

It was created as a part Season 3 of the Public Space Project, a program by Downtown Durham, Inc. that provides grants to individuals and organizations to bring creative, free-of-charge experiences to downtown. The following narrative was written by the artists.

About Warli Art:

Culture expresses itself in many ways, one of which is in the art of its people. Indian culture, as it is seen today, is an eclectic mix of people and traditions. The earliest known art form in India is tribal art. While each tribal art form has its own history and influences, there is one that by virtue of its inherent simplicity, commands attention – the unique art of the Warli tribe from Western India, that deals with the relatively mundane happenings of daily life.

Inspired by nature

Warli art can be best understood through the eyes of the tribe: their religious habits, traditions and folklore. The Warli pay homage to various forms of nature – the sun, the moon, and the gods of thunder, lightning, wind and rain, the trees, fields, mountains and rivers, animals and birds. With these paintings, they convey and reinforce their bond with nature.

Geometry as art

Warli paintings have a basic graphic vocabulary of circles, triangles, and squares, which become the building blocks for an art form that has remained almost unchanged through the ages. A distinctive feature of Warli art is that it is stark. With brown mud backgrounds and drawings in white, the paintings bring an element of freshness to the day-to-day events they symbolize. 

Their linear nature and monochromatic hues make them similar to pre-historic cave paintings and Aboriginal Art in execution. Warli paintings usually depict scenes of human figures engaged in activities like hunting, dancing, sowing and harvesting. These paintings also serve social and religious aspirations of the local people, since it is believed that these paintings invoke powers of the Gods.

The tradition continues

People admire Warli paintings because they give us an insight into the daily activities of the Warlis. Today, Warli paintings have become ubiquitous and are more popular in India than ever before. Despite the challenges of maintaining traditions in our transient and fast-paced world, the Warli paintings are a reminder of the rich tribal culture that continues to thrive. 

Sampada was fortunate to be able to learn this art form from the Warli tribe members. Here is an effort by us to paint a mural in Durham using this art style and bring it into our everyday lives.

About the Artists:

SAMPADA KODAGALI AGARWAL is a self-taught visual artist, who has spent more than 15 years exploring traditional Indian folk and tribal arts. Her work has been accepted in a number of exhibitions, shows and she is part of various community outreach and philanthropic causes. One of her Warli works was accepted at NCMA for the ‘Art of the Auction’ in May 2013. Her latest project acceptances include a window art public project, run by the Town of Chapel Hill and a collaboration with IIT-Bombay students. She is also a Certified Zentangle Teacher (CZT) – her explorations with Zentangle® as a CZT since 2012, have opened up new doors of collaboration and creation with students and artists around the globe.

RAMYA SUNDARESAN KAPADIA is a Carnatic vocalist and Bharatanatyam dancer. She is fast making a name for herself as a solo Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer. Ramya has written, choreographed and scored the music for several dance theater productions for Bharatanatyam dancers all over the United States and abroad. She is passionate about her work and uses it to create awareness about social issues, successfully fundraising for several organizations all over the U.S.  She is the recipient of the Ella Pratt Emerging Artist Award and the North Carolina Dance Alliance Choreography Fellowship. She currently runs the Natyarpana School of Dance & Music in Durham, NC. She holds Masters Degrees in Medical Physics and Neuroscience and now pursues the arts full-time.

                                                    Ramya (left) and Sampada (right)

The teamwork:

Common ideologies of beauty, flow and discipline drew both Sampada and Ramya to each other’s works. Over the past 10 years, they have supported and been inspired by each other’s creative talent and have actively engaged with the community through music, dance and art. They looked forward to this artistic collaboration that helped each of them contribute using their respective fields of expertise and grow.

About the Project:

The idea:

It all started with a fairly innocuous idea, hatched by Sampada and Ramya; that blossomed into this magnificent mural in Durham – a one-of-a-kind feat, both in scale and content.  Sampada had always been toying with this idea of bringing Warli art to the Triangle area on a large scale. When Ramya reached out to Sampada for applying to the Public Space Project, Sampada was thrilled to collaborate. Once they got together, ideas flew around and ultimately landed on a proposal to marry the art with the history of Durham. Depicting the changing landscape of Durham, a city that has grown into a great urban hub, was a natural conclusion. 

Warli, an indigenous art form of Western India, reflects the everyday lives and events of its people and so was the perfect vehicle to portray the dynamic nature of Durham’s landscapes from its rural cotton and tobacco-growing past to its vibrant, urban present using this minimalistic but expressive art form. 

The people:

Sampada and Ramya have a number of people to thank for making it possible for this idea to gain fruition. First and foremost, they are eternally grateful to Rachel Wexler and Connor Nielsen from Downtown Durham Inc. for having the faith in them and sharing their vision. It was a pleasure working with both of them! The Public Space Project 2020 provided them the perfect platform to showcase this art and its limitless creativity. Please find more information about other similar events supported by DDI on their FB page –

They would like to thank Patrick Mucklow and Jeanette Shaffer at the Museum of Durham History, for helping them fill in on the historical milestones of Durham from the early 1700s to today. 

They would like to thank Joe Lemanski, the owner of the building at 313 Foster Street, the venue of our mural, for his support and for allowing them to use this landmark building to showcase their art. They would like to thank the staff at Lexitas including Sue Rains, the office manager of Lexitas, for their support – periodic checks of their wellbeing by Sue during the days when they were hanging off the wall were greatly appreciated!

They would like to thank their spouses and family for pitching in when needed and staying out of our way, when not. 🙂 Without their unwavering support, this huge undertaking would not have been undertaken or completed. The final step of varnishing the entire wall would have been impossible, if not for the timely help by Anuj and Amit to iron out all the kinks.

They would surely like to thank the local Durham Sherwin Williams store staff for helping suggest the preferred paints and varnish. They would also like to thank Si (Jay) Statham for his guidance on suggesting the right boom life to rent, and the process of getting the boom lift operator’s certification – a step that they undertook in record time. They would also like to thank Mike for patiently giving them the hour long practical instruction on the boom lift – without which they would have been truly handicapped. 

The passersby, both the daily as well as occasional ones, were truly our motivation. While up there on the boom lift, working on their mural, it was quite heartening to hear a young voice call out – “wow” – that was their validation, right there! Those young, curious enthusiastic ones were their true admirers and they can still hear the ring of those excited voices in their ears! The art style was quite foreign to all the viewers, but the content was local and so very relatable! This merging of the East and the West was the true winner of this effort.

The community outreach:

The idea was to educate and interact with the community while painting the mural. But then, we got hit with a pandemic and so all possibilities of in-person interactions were shelved. Instead, they suggested online workshops to share information about the art. That initiative was greatly appreciated! It also helped them connect with a much larger audience – both local and global. Plus the fact that these workshops are available for anyone to view in the long term makes the effort taken more lasting.

Here are the links to the workshop recordings, for your ease of reference:

There were a number of participants in both the workshops – their interest in the art was quite heartening. Quite a few of them also worked on their own stories conveyed using this art style, which made the tutorials so worthwhile!

Connecting the art and history:

About the Warli icons:

The tree of life is one of the hallmarks of the Warli iconography. It is the place where the entire village or community congregates. Here, they have used an oak tree, a regional landmark tree – one that provides shade to all and a strong foundation, shown by the roots that sneakily spell out the word “Durham” as well! 

The Tarpa Dance: This spiral dance is a very popular motif used in the Warli world. Dancing together in a spiral with the main person in the middle playing a tune on his tarpa (an indigenous instrument made out of dried gourd) for all to dance to, is very identifiable. Lake Jordan also makes an appearance in this vignette – with all the water sports that area residents indulge in – kayaking, fishing, stand up paddle, or simply feeding the ducks. 

Onsite shenanigans and the boom lift:

The 10 days that they spent together on the wall were truly magical. Armed with Sampada’s artistic abilities along with Ramya’s unwavering support , time flew and the mural evolved as they went through the days. They had rented the boom lift for a week – so time was limited. Plus the rain gods were also doing a number in the area during those days. They persevered through true grit. Rain or shine, they would reach the wall every morning with great enthusiasm. Lunch breaks were the only times they would sit down – a picnic basket packed in the morning gave them some time to take a break, admire their handiwork and eat, while brainstorming on the next steps. During the weekends, they also had friends visit them and watch them work on the wall. The food they got and the support they received, was greatly appreciated.

They have to mention this additional adventure they went through to be able to paint the mural. Having never painted a mural before, both Sampada and Ramya were unaware of the pitfalls of choosing a large wall that did not have a level ground.

Long story short, using a boom lift was indeed the best decision they made. It really opened up the entire wall for them and they could paint on any part of the wall with ease!

From a blank wall…

…to the final result, for all to see and enjoy! A true win for Warli, a simple, yet highly expressive art, with a monochromatic style that sneaks into people’s hearts with its guileless, matter-of-fact approach to art.

BONUS — Scavenger Hunt!

Can you spot all 42 items in the mural?

1. An owl22. Stand up paddler
2. A classroom23. A recent graduate
3. A child sitting on the dad’s shoulder24. A snake
4. A weeping willow25. A tobacco field
5. A microscope26. A Victorian couple going to church
6. An anthill27. A band playing music
7. Number of ants in the anthill28. A scientist
8. An ambulance29. Three people on scooters
9. The word “DURHAM”30. A helicopter in the sky
10. Three deer31. Library
11. A guy fishing using a net32. A newly married couple
12. A hunter with a bow and arrow33. Kids playing basketball
13. Chickens picking grain34. A multilevel car parking lot
14. A photographer35. A bicycle rider
15. A schoolhouse36. The Duke Chapel
16. Kids playing soccer37. A pine forest
17. A guy serenading his girlfriend38. A girl wearing a hat with a feather riding a horse
18. A grist mill39. A railroad under construction
19. Yoga enthusiasts40. A cotton field
20. A patient on a stretcher41. A pregnant mother working on the laptop
21. Children hopping and skipping to school42. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park

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