Body of Work: Documenting India’s indigenous tattoo traditions
Mumbai-based Artist Shomil Shah's Crowd-sourced Collection Of Narratives And Stories About Tattoos Is Steadily Growing And Generating Interest Across India.
A fashion statement. A social tradition. Or just plain tribal art. Call it whatever you like, but tattoos have been making big, bold statements for centuries around the world. In India, tattoos have been in vogue since prehistoric times, used by different communities and tribes for a variety of reasons—from displaying their status and family name to ancestral lineage and to creating art.
Though in modern times, tattoos have been associated around the world with rebellion and self-expression, the culture of tattoos is ancient in India, where everything from thorns and bones was used as an instrument, with materials like cow-dung mixed with turmeric or plant juices serving as ink.
Shomil Shah, 39, a Mumbai-based tattoo artist, realised that though his grandmother and great-grandmother had inked themselves, there was no documented evidence or the archive of that oral heritage. “I got into tattooing around three years ago, shortly after I got my first tattoo. I was soon bitten by the tattoo bug and decided to have a go at it myself, and so bought a DIY stick and poke kit online while I was living and working in London, as a graphic designer,” he says. “I started by tattooing myself, and around that time, my mum told me about her dadi, my great grandmother, who also had these beautiful tattoos. It came as quite a surprise to me that tattooing was in my family, and part of our culture,” he adds.
Shah’s family is from Kutch, Gujarat, where it was customary until a couple of generations back, for people to have tattoos, especially the women. Women seem to be more heavily tattooed in most parts of the sub-continent, with one exception being the Northeast, where men are as heavily tattooed as the women among the Naga tribes.
“India had a rich history of tattooing, which for various socio-economic reasons started to fade away, and less and less of its citizens were opting for these traditional tattoos, especially in urban areas,” says Shah. Rapid urbanisation and modernity made indigenous tattoos seem outdated and primitive to young people.
“I started to incorporate some of these traditional designs into my tattoo practice, from the little research I was able to do online and another source which I found walking around our streets and markets–older women with tattoo markings. I would start a conversation with anyone whom I saw with these slightly faded and spread-out markings, trying to understand what they meant and photograph them, if they felt comfortable with it.”
Harnessing the knowledge of local plants
Soon many clients started sending images of elders in their family who had some tattoo markings. Shah decided to start an Instagram project called India. Ink. Archive as a visual archive of all the tattoos that people sent him, and those he discovered while travelling through Indian states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. This crowd-sourced collection of narratives and stories about tattoos is steadily growing and generating interest.
Each state in India has its own patterns and motifs as well as particular dyes and improvised tattooing instruments. From the Toda tribe of the Nilgiris in South India who use the same motifs in their tattoos as in their embroidery, to the tribes of Odisha who use geometric facial tattoos, this is a rich heritage of art and culture. Many women had jewellery tattooed on their necks and hands, as they could either not afford gold or thought it would stay with them for their afterlife. Many got tattoos as they believed that they would improve their health.
The motifs used are varied, from palanquins and crowns to indigenous plants and flowers, harvests, fruits, grains and even water tanks. The stories on Shah’s account range from a woman in Uttarakhand, who got her tattoo done in a village fair (mela) with what felt like an injection, to 89-year-old Vithalbai Joshi from Gujarat who has a flower motif on his hand that he got as a child of five or six, which was supposed to be a watch (in those days a watch was a luxury, out of the reach of common people).
The methodology of tattoos too has evolved over time — earlier needles ranged from sharp bones and thorns from the baval or the pomelo tree and eventually, this changed to sewing needles tied in bundles, to local tattoo artists now using rudimentary tattoo machines.
“The ink would be made from collecting soot from a vegetable oil lamp, such as sesame oil, and the soot would then be mixed with a carrier like oil, water, breast milk, cow's milk etc. Some of these would have had antiseptic properties. They would also sometimes mix in some locally grown plants to add a certain pigment or for their medicinal properties to help with healing, such as the juice of Bael tree, or indigo, betel leaf etc,” explains Shah.
“Tattoos involved knowledge of local plants, the significance of seasons and festivals, spirituality, and was, above all, a form of self-expression,” says Shah. Documented on his Instagram account are Trajva designs of Rabari tribes in Gujarat and Rajasthan, with motifs like snakes and scorpions, that he spotted on some old women in Bhuj’s jewellery market and Godna markings from West India which served as permanent jewellery for those ‘who could not afford gold and gems’ with motifs like Lord Krishna’s throne flanked by peacocks.
“I have just started scratching the surface on the topic of traditional tattoos and this all comes from my own interest. I am by no means an expert on the topic and am constantly learning and evolving in my own practice,” says Shah, humbly. “What I want to do is just celebrate the work and traditions of these indigenous communities and create awareness.”
Kalpana Sunder is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Chennai, India. She writes on gender, development, environment, culture, travel and food. She has been published in BBC Future, The Guardian, Al Jazeera and SCMP Hong Kong.