Conventions for tattoos generally follow the same pattern. Large warehouses are given over to booths, where artists can use tattoo guns or ink lovers for competition or commerce. The Godna Project, to be held at Delhi’s Khuli Khirkee studio on October 8 and 9, won’t be anything like that.
Instead, Chennai-based researcher and arts practitioner M Sahana Rao, 28, is bringing together indigenous tattoo artists from across India, in an effort to document and discuss India’s inking traditions. It is obvious that tattoos can be irreplaceable. However, knowledge about local hand-poke techniques, symbolism and needle-making as well as the production of inks from indigenous sources is rapidly disappearing.
“So many communities have simply forgotten how they created and viewed tattooing,” Rao says. “I want to bring as many practitioners as I can to one place, so they can share knowledge with each other and with the rest of us.”
It’s more about remembering than reviving, she adds. S Janaki, a Kurumba tribe member of the shepherds and weavers from Ooty in Tamil Nadu is fifty and one of the few in her community who has tattoos. She doesn’t recall much of the process of making some of the indigenous inks. Rao believes that meeting people similar to herself could trigger her memories.
Moranngam Khling, 37 years old, has spent many hours researching inking cultures of the Naga people, as well as other tribal groups in Nagaland Manipur and Arunachal. He will then discuss local motifs that are found in these areas. Mangla Bai will, 34, demonstrate how the use of many needles simultaneously helps to make thick designs that are inked by Madhya Pradesh’s Gond and Baiga tribes.
The artists, along with practitioners Hanshi Bai, Lakhami and Kevala Nag from Chhattisgarh, will also be in conversation with Mushtak Khan, former deputy director of Delhi’s Crafts Museum. “India’s ministry of culture does not recognise tattoos as an art form,” says Rao. “But people in cities are getting interested in our indigenous motifs and techniques.”
Indian tattoo artist Shomil Shah has documented traditional tattoos from all over the country on Instagram at @India.Ink.Archive. You can find styles such as those worn by Rabari tribes in Gujarat and Rajasthan that once replaced jewellery with dotted, trajva markings. These motifs are available in a rich virtual library for those who want to tattoo traditional designs.
Mangla Bai claims that tattooing youngsters at Mumbai events is a hobby she likes. She also uses canvas to preserve the original motifs. It’s how designs have found a new life in the West as well. American tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy, who influenced popular tattoo styles in that country between the ’70s to the ’90s, licensed retailers to put his designs on clothes and accessories under the Ed Hardy label in the 2000s, giving them a wider audience. Katherine von Drachenberg’s tattoo techniques and art were featured on reality television show LA Ink. She has since created a line of cosmetics that are decorated with her artwork and named Kat Von D.
The Godna Project offers workshops and sessions with Arjel, a Delhi-based Nepali tattoo artist. The artist learned Baiga tattooing techniques from Mangla Bai. He then hand-pokes his design with indigenous tools and needles.
“Tattoos have been in use around the world for centuries,” says Rao. The body of a man whom scientists call Ötzi or the Iceman, likely buried in an avalanche along what is now the Austrian-Italian border around 3250 BCE, had 61 tattoos across his body, including on his left wrist, lower legs, lower back and torso. “Humans have used tattoos as social markers, rites of passage, decoration, and as indelible marks we can carry into the afterlife. Among the Banjaras of Karnataka, tattoos are also therapy – aching joints are covered in splotches of ink in the belief that they relieve pain. Much of this is disappearing even before we can study it.”
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