Getting under the skin: A bunch of artists and scholars is documenting India’s rich tattooing traditions

Tattoos have been integral to Indian life over centuries as symbols of beauty, ritual or identity 

April 09, 2022 04:30 pm | Updated 04:30 pm IST

An Apatani woman with the tattoos and nose plugs that are an intrinsic part of their beauty culture.

An Apatani woman with the tattoos and nose plugs that are an intrinsic part of their beauty culture.

When London-based graphic designer Shomil Shah was scouring the Internet looking for ideas for a decidedly Indian looking tattoo, he chanced upon an article written by tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak. Known for his research into indigenous body modification arts, Krutak has also hosted a 10-part documentary series, Tattoo Hunter, on Discovery Channel. Intrigued and inspired by what he saw, Shah froze upon the idea for his first tattoo — a mango leaf kolam.

Once a widespread phenomenon, as society evolved and urbanisation spread, fewer Indians got tattoos. The art was relegated to rural areas and remote villages. “Tattooing seems to have skipped a generation or two in India,” says Shah, who discovered after he got his first few tattoos that his maternal great grandmother also had them. His family hails from the Kutch region of Gujarat. Home to various nomadic and pastoral communities, getting tattoos was once the norm there.

Fascinated by what he learnt, Shah taught himself the basics of the art with a DIY kit that he bought online. Using the age-old stick-and-poke method, he began creating tattoos on himself and then on friends. In November 2019, he took a sabbatical from work and moved back to India from London. The move gave him a chance to delve deeper into the country’s under-documented tattoo culture.

Shomil Shah uses the stick-and-poke method of tattooing.

Shomil Shah uses the stick-and-poke method of tattooing.

“A lot of people saw my work on the Internet and started reaching out to me, with stories of the tattoos they had seen on their grandmother, aunt or cook. Some sent photographs. A few also approached me to get tattoos based on designs their family members sported,” says Shah. People of Indian origin from places as far as Guyana, Canada and Australia got in touch with him, eager to learn more about traditional Indian tattoo designs that they had seen in their families.

This growing interest spurred him to create the Instagram page India Ink Archive, which is a crowdsourced repository of original tattoos from across the subcontinent. From highly detailed designs to two simple lines drawn to represent a watch — an object that only the rich could afford — the page brings to life a variety of symbols and the stories behind them. They are inked on women spotted at railway stations or someone outside a tea shop. Ninety-year-old Indira Bai who hails from Maharashtra’s Koli community sports three tattoos — a palki on her right forearm, a pair of pomfret fish on her left for good luck, and a third eye on her forehead to ward off evil.

Into the afterlife

Far from being a sign of rebelliousness, tattoos have been an integral part of tribal culture across the subcontinent. In his article titled ‘India: Land of Eternal Ink’, Krutak says, “For hundreds if not thousands of years, India has maintained a rich cultural heritage of tattooing tradition spanning the entire length and breadth of the country. From the dense, rain-soaked mountain jungles of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in the northeast to the dry deserts of Kutch in Gujarat on the Pakistan border in the far west, tattoos not only served to beautify the human body but to carry it into the afterlife.”

Godna artist Mangla Bai etching a Baiga tattoo on Shomil Shah’s arm. (All the tattoo designs in the frame are Baiga.) 

Godna artist Mangla Bai etching a Baiga tattoo on Shomil Shah’s arm. (All the tattoo designs in the frame are Baiga.) 

Members of various tribes wore tattoos not just as adornment but also for protection and as a sign of belonging. Largely inspired by nature, the tattoos were created using rudimentary tools, mostly sharp bones and thorns. The ink was made from soot mixed with breast milk, cow’s milk, cow urine, oil or water. In some regions, after the design was done, the area was rubbed with cow dung, which worked as a disinfectant and lent a darker colour.

For the Baiga tribe, ‘godna’ or tattooing is linked with female beauty and life stages. They believe tattoos travel to the afterlife because the ink integrates into the body. Tattoos have also been a symbol of victory. Members of Nagaland’s Konyak tribe, whose menfolk were warriors, practised headhunting and had to earn their tattoos. Those who were successful on the battlefield earned the right to wear certain designs. Moranngam Khaling, also known as Mo Naga, was a student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology when he stumbled upon a traditional Konyak tattoo and he has since been on a quest to discover, document and safeguard indigenous tattoo designs, their meaning and relevance.

Mo Naga studies the forehead tattoo on an elderly Pochury Naga woman for his research.

Mo Naga studies the forehead tattoo on an elderly Pochury Naga woman for his research.

Now a full-time tattoo artist, Mo belongs to the Uipo tribe from Manipur, and is very conscious of cultural appropriation and misinterpretation. He has extensively studied the online archives of museums as well as manuscripts and books by various scholars, historians and anthropologists. With this background, he travelled the Northeast with local interpreters to explore the varied tattoo traditions of the region. “Tattoos are one of the least documented art forms in the country. Not just in the Northeast but elsewhere as well,” he says.

Through his work, he hopes to raise awareness about the significance of wearing tattoos and the meaning behind the symbols. “Every tribe has a different set of tattoos that marks their identity. They also mark the stages of their life, their achievements and capture their connection with nature.” And, often overlooked, “Tattoos are also an expression of the people and their aesthetics,” he says.

An Ao Naga chest tattoo.

An Ao Naga chest tattoo.

Mo also hopes to dispel certain commonly held beliefs which he says are misleading. For instance, there’s a widespread belief that women of the Apatani tribe from Arunachal Pradesh were tattooed and wore nose plugs to make them less desirable in the eyes of rival tribes. Having studied the tattoos of the Apatani tribe for nearly a decade, Mo says this is a misinterpretation. The tattoos and nose plugs were an intrinsic part of their customs and were worn to enhance their beauty.

Evolving and adapting

A turning point in his journey was when an 82-year-old peetei (queen in Konyak), who was a tattoo artist, agreed to give him a tattoo. Mo says he felt blessed as the old lady was picking up her tools again after a gap of over 60 years. “She told me, don’t ask for a face tattoo, as that is the mark of a great warrior and those who are alive will not be happy about it,” he says. They agreed on a chest tattoo, but due to her failing eyesight she couldn’t complete the pattern. Although incomplete, Mo considers it to be very significant. Seeing his enthusiasm and work, she also passed on her tools to him, hoping that he will carry the tradition forward. Mo holds these tools in great reverence and uses them only under special circumstances.

Shomil Shah’s design book.

Shomil Shah’s design book.

Keen to keep the region’s tattooing traditions alive, Mo is now in the process of setting up a tattoo village in Tengnoupal district, Manipur, with a tattoo garden where he will grow the plants needed for the dye.

Tattooing as an art form is not just about carrying forward a legacy. For it to thrive and flourish, art needs to evolve and adapt to changing times. Tattoo artist Abhinandan Basu based in Mannheim, Germany, hopes to create his own unique visual lexicon, drawing inspiration from West Bengal art — old lithographs, sarachitra or clay thalis, Kalighat patachitra, wall paintings and alpana. Basu gives traditional motifs a contemporary twist making them more appealing for the younger generation.

Germany-based Abhinandan Basu, who draws inspiration from West Bengal art.

Germany-based Abhinandan Basu, who draws inspiration from West Bengal art.

Lost context

According to Basu, the biggest challenge the art grapples with is a lack of context. In the absence of proper documentation coupled with ever-changing social norms, there’s so much about the art form that has been lost. “If there’s no context, it’s just a drawing. Context gives it power,” he says. Basu now plans to bring out a book on the subject.

Many tattoos may appear to be simple designs but they are examples of complex iconography and have a strong reasoning behind them. Shah says, “Most people who wear indigenous tattoo designs probably got them when they were between 6 and 16. Most times, they don’t remember what the symbol means.” Krutak writes, “Ethnic groups in India also believe in the ‘medicinal’ significance of tattooing. Mal Paharia women of Jharkhand say that tattooing keeps their organs healthy and helps them to function properly. Muslim Maler women living in the Punjab believe that tattoo marks on the forehead promote safe delivery during childbirth.”

With changing times, some of this context loses relevance, but newer ones replace it. Mo is confident that expressing oneself through tattoos is an innate art form that will not fade away. He says, “We have this core instinct to be close to nature. Young people want to connect with their roots. They may not be consciously aware of it but instinctively they desire to go within and express themselves.”

The freelance writer, based in Dubai, writes on travel, culture and food.

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