Herron Alum Shares Indian Culture Through Design

Woman standing next a laptop and artwork.
Warli painting originated near Mumbai, where Ria Vavhal grew up. Her senior capstone project features the Indian painting style. Courtesy photo.

Ria Vavhal, BFA’23, finds Indianapolis quiet compared to the city sounds outside her bedroom in Mumbai. But the diverse and vibrant IUPUI campus, roughly 8,000 miles away from India’s west coast, quickly felt like home.

“I like how welcoming IUPUI is. There are students from around the world, and I was introduced to many different cultures in my first year,” she says.

Vavhal knew education would eventually bring her to America, but she wasn’t set on leaving South Asia after high school. While preparing for the architecture entrance exam in India, she kept her options open by taking the SAT and applying to schools in the U.S.

“The [Herron School of Art and Design] stood out to me because it was a designated design college and not just a major,” Vavhal explains.

She considered a future in science or architecture but felt the pull to a less “mechanical” career.

“I wanted to find a focal point between science and art, and design was the intersection. It’s communicating a message, [not] random art. [It’s] designing with a purpose,” says Vavhal. “Visual communication design aligned with all that I wanted. It’s logical and gave me creative space.”

Vavhal’s acclimation to Indianapolis was interrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in 2020. She returned to Mumbai and finished her freshman year online—attending class from her childhood home in the middle of the night due to the 10-and-a-half-hour time difference.

Man and woman holding a plaque.
Vavhal, right, with McKinney School of Law professor Andrew Klein, was honored as an IUPUI Top 100 student during her junior and senior years, earning Top 10 the latter time. Photo courtesy of IU Alumni Association.

After three semesters of online learning on the other side of the world, Vavhal returned to America. Her senior capstone project brought her India to Indiana journey full circle when she decided to spotlight Warli painting—an Indian tribal art, which originated near her home in Mumbai and dates back to the 10th century A.D. Warli art portrays nature and symbolism by using a paste created from rice powder combined with natural dyes such as turmeric, charcoal, and dried flowers.

“The Western audience does not know about this art form, so I wanted to present it to them and talk about their culture,” she says.

Her project—featured in the 2023 IUPUI Honors College Student Showcase—imagined a nonprofit organization called the Warli Art Foundation, which would support the Warli people by sharing their culture through workshops and events.

“Studying a different culture and incorporating their styles and patterns into design interests me,” she says. IUPUI’s student body represents 142 countries, yet Vavhal was the only international student in her academic program. “I had to adopt [American] culture to understand the design here, so I think I can do that with other cultures as well.”

Written By
Autumn Simone Monaghan
Autumn Monaghan, MA'14, is a graduate of IUPUI’s Sports Capital Journalism Program and a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.