Campus Buzz: Trendy tattoos, belly buttons

Updated on Mar 12, 2005 08:02 PM IST

The practice of tattooing has origins in Indian legends and myths, writes Annie Datta from Portugal in our regular series From the Varsity.

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PTI | ByAnnie Datta, Portugal
My great grandmother, I am told, had three triangular tattoo marks on her chin. She also had her ears pierced all over to accommodate her ethnicity. The ethnic jewellery that my grandmother inherited from her has suddenly become trendy at leading jewellery shops in India and abroad. The craze for tattoo marks also persists with my generation as a complement to the imitations of antique jewellery -­- a fad among university students.

The practice of tattooing has origins in Indian legends and myths. My grandmother would narrate to me an incident when Krishna unable to resist separation from Radha disguised himself as a name engraver. Krishna thus approached Radha's house and tempted to have her love celebrated in tattoo form. While this went on, the dilemma arose when it came to writing Krishna's name on Radha's feet. This story was perhaps a deviation from the original episode when Jayadeva the author of Gita Govinda faces a similar dilemma in penning down a line stating that Krishna bows down to touch the feet of Radha. Implying thereby Krishna's subordination to the gopis headed by Radha. In my grandmother's version Krishna politely rebukes Radha for having the Godhead penned on her toenail. A painting from the Garhwal School illustrates this narration. A displeased Radha here is being appeased by Krishna who paints her feet.

Examples exist also in English literature especially in the story The Background by H H Munro (Saki) where a tattooed back of a salesman becomes a backdrop for controversies. In a way the irreversible tattoo design represents the human situation. The decision to have his back tattooed by a famous Italian master of tattoo craft Signor Andreas Pincini weighs heavily on Henri Deplis  and more than a piece of art, it becomes a burden for the protagonist.

A trend that the West has been slow to catch on is the foot jewellery that symbolises the pride of a Rajasthani woman who according to a point of view prefers to keep valuables close to her toe making space for higher intellectual values that do not go together with such material artifice. This is not to deny the rich Rajasthani tradition of jewellery for every part of the body.  For example, one sees items like hairpins, nose rings, Karanfhoosl, earrings (jhumkas), necklaces and chokers, armlets (bujbands), bangles and rings (often combined in a hathphool), kardhanis (around waist), toe rings and anklets for foot.

There was a time when one could identify the ethnic origin of a woman through the jewellery she wore. The loads of silver jewellery on their body could spot Rajasthani women. Today, foot ornamentation remains popular in other states of India as well. Gujarat Maharastra, Andra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu being some of them. Woman from Multan, one is told, would be singled out by her long black skirt and the nose ring worn unconventionally with a red ruby suspended from the middle of the nose. My own grand mother, who belonged to the north-west, had a number of ear studs all along her ears. During that epoch, henna application was only confined to the hands and the feet and that too on festive occasions. The traditional jewellery and henna pasting had patterns derived from the flora and fauna of the Indian subcontinent. Rajasthani and Gujarati mehndi applications have delicate floral designs that often overlap with stylized peacocks and "ambis" (budding mangoes). The latter is an erotic symbol having religious overtones as well. Leaves from the mango trees form festoons with marigolds to sanctify ceremonies. Parrots and fish are some of the other prominent motifs in this art form.

A new variant to the traditional mehndi art has been introduced lately in India to cater to college going girls who prefer a more modern look that goes with their western outfits. The teenage population in Asia and elsewhere is turning a traditional, ritualistic practice to an attractive modern usage in the shape of body art. Henna tattoo is becoming both trendy and hip. A celeb no less than Madonna used it in her "Frozen" video. We also have something called glitter mehndi that includes metallic hues and colours. Rajasthani women line the pavements in various parts of the Indian capital. Indian fashion goers are still conservative compared to their Western counterparts who have radicalised both the art of tattoo and body piercing.

Being an Indian, I was recently asked in a class discussion to elaborate the term ambika. A word that my professor had picked up from a signboard in Coimbra. Happy with the opportunity to explain something Indian, I referred to Ambika the Queen of Hastinapur. Ambika also refers to an astonishingly beautiful woman embodied in mythology in Parvati who had once lured demons to their death. Generally speaking, Ambika is thus the Indian version of the femme fatale.
Trends, it seems, travel with time connecting past and present. Pierced eyebrows, ringed lips, studded tongues and metallic rings and circles at unimagined places all refer back to man's traditional, tribal origin. Be it Egypt, Rome or the world of the American Indian. Traditional India did not lag behind either.

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