Ink spell: Celebrate Indian tattoos at The Godna Project in Delhi
From indigenous inks and hand poke styes to traditional motifs, the Godna Project in Delhi will bring together indigenous tattoo artists from across India, in an effort to document and discuss India’s inking traditions
Most tattoo conventions follow a pattern: Large warehouse areas given over to booths where subversive artists wield tattoo guns and ink enthusiasts for commerce or competition. 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. The irony presents itself right away: tattoos are indelible. But knowledge of local hand-poke styles, symbolism, even needle-making and the making of indigenous inks is fast disappearing from memory.
“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, from the Kurumba tribe of shepherds and weavers in Ooty, Tamil Nadu, is 50, and is among the last in her community to administer tattoos. She doesn’t recall much of the process of making some of the indigenous inks. Rao hopes meeting others like herself might trigger her memory.
Moranngam Khaling, 37, who has been researching the inking culture of his Naga people and of other tribes in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, will speak on what local motifs from these states represent. Mangla Bai, 34, will demonstrate how using many needles at once helps create the thick designs inked by the Baiga and Gond tribes of Madhya Pradesh.
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.”
On Instagram, @India.Ink.Archive, run by Mumbai-based tattoo artist Shomil Shah, has been documenting traditional tattoo designs from across the country. These include styles such as the dotted trajva markings worn by the Rabari tribes of Gujarat and Rajasthan, which once substituted for jewellery. Such motifs, along with kolams from southern India, evil-eye patterns and other designs, form a rich virtual archive for young people looking to get traditional tattoos.
Mangla Bai says she enjoys tattooing young people at events in Mumbai. But to keep the motifs alive, she also paints on canvas. 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, whose tattoo art and methods were showcased on the reality TV show LA Ink, has a successful line of beauty products, decorated with her designs and bearing her professional name, Kat Von D.
At The Godna Project, among the other events, visitors can sign up for tattoo sessions and workshops with Delhi-based Nepali artist Arjel Amit. He studied Baiga-style tattooing from Mangla Bai and hand-pokes the design using 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.”