The convention pattern is to have large warehouse areas that are converted into booths. This allows subversive artists to use tattoo guns and ink enthusiasts to trade or compete. 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 are permanent. However, the knowledge of local hand-pokes, symbolism, needle-making, and how to make inks from indigenous sources is quickly 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 is 50 years old and is from the Kurumba tribe, which is made up of shepherds and weavers. She is the last person in her community who can administer tattoos. She doesn’t recall much of the process of making some of the indigenous inks. Rao hopes that she will be able to recall the process of making some of the indigenous inks if she meets others like her.
Moranngam Khaling (37), who has been studying the inking culture of his Naga tribe and other tribes in Nagaland and Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh will discuss what local motifs these states have. Mangla Bai, 34 will demonstrate how the use of many needles simultaneously creates thick designs inked from the Baiga or Gond 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.”
Shomil Shah (a Mumbai-based tattoo artist) has been sharing traditional tattoo designs on Instagram. These include styles like the dotted, trajva markings worn in Rajasthan and Gujarat by Rabari tribes. They were once used as a substitute for jewellery. For young people who are interested in traditional tattoos, these motifs can be found alongside kolams from India and evil-eye designs.
Mangla Bai said that she loves tattooing young people at Mumbai events. She also paints on canvas to keep the motifs fresh. 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 art and methods were featured on the reality TV series LA Ink. She has since created a line of beauty products that are decorated with her designs.
Visitors can sign up to attend workshops and sessions with Arjel Amit, a Delhi-based Nepali artist, at The Godna Project. He was trained in Baiga tattooing by Mangla Bai. He then hand-pokes his design using native 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.”