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Indian art and tattoos: History, evolution and relevance

Indian art and tattoos

Indian art and tattoos have been linked to each other for centuries. For many traditional tattoo artists, the month of Shravan on the Hindu calendar is considered the holiest month of the year, also the time of peak business. However, the demand for traditional tattoos is on a sharp decline and what was once considered to be a staple in Indian society attracts just a few customers. This has forced traditional tattoo artists to take over alternate professions to make ends meet. 

Tattoos, inspired by traditional Indian art, encompass symbols and meanings that have withstood the test of time for centuries. In northern India, especially amongst the Hindu communities, tattoos were believed to possess remarkable powers. A tattoo on a woman’s forehead was thought to promote the safe delivery of children and every married woman was expected to have a Sita ki rasoi tattoo – a name that translates to “Sita’s kitchen” which was a charm to manage a household. 

The importance of Indian art and tattoos

Tattoos were considered a financial status and had various social meanings. Another popular tattoo for young women involved five dots in a cross, representing five Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata, which served as a reminder for birders to live amicably with their brothers-in-law. Other designs were meant to ward off various forms of misfortune and the evil eye. It’s not just evolving beliefs that have led to a decline in traditional tattoos, for many men in rural areas, the prospect of joining the army and paramilitary means they cannot have body art.

The evolution of Indian art and tattoos

While tattoos remain prevalent in tribal culture, the idea of tattoos has been redefined in urban areas and there is a clear disconnect between the current generation and earlier ethos. In the past, a tattoo symbolised a religious purpose and was followed by occupation, social hierarchy and caste. Today, it’s viewed as a fashion statement and the younger generation prefers intricate and multi-coloured designs instead of traditional artists who use only black and work with crude, homemade machines.

Indian art and tattoos
The scorpion motif bears striking similarities in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (Image source: outlookindia.com)

The cultural and religious importance of tattoos

For many, tattoos traverse the boundary between fine and folk art. The Mer/Maher or Rabari tribes of Gujarat and Rajasthan had women with unique dotted tattoos on their hands and neck known as “trajva” which was used in place of jewelry for those who couldn’t afford any. The village of Karavad in Gujarat would use green sap from a local plant mixed with soot to create tattoos while the Baiga tribes from Madhya Pradesh would rub tattoos with cow dung and a paste of turmeric and vegetable oil to make designs darker. The Tharu tribes on the India-Nepal border would also use the same aftercare process.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these traditions was that tattoos were traditionally a female pursuit but not just limited to them. It was not just the women in the family who would bear the tattoos but also the ones who would apply them in stick-and-poke style (where one or multiple long needles are tied together to manually create a tattoo). Tattoos in India were not just meant for protection in day-to-day life but they were also a passport for forgiveness of sins and admission to heaven. Such was their importance that in some regions of Mysore, it was believed that Hindu women who were not tattooed with certain designs were considered unclean. 

The preservation of Indian art and tattoos

In the present day, there are a handful of tattoo artists who are keeping traditional tattooing alive. Hand-poked tattoos by Shlo Poke, a private studio run by former graphic designer Shomil Shah is one of them. She began experimenting with a DIY hand poke tattoo kit a few years ago and often uses shells, coral, leaves, flowers, seeds and more as ‘natural stencils’ to create the actual tattoo. Her practice focuses on trajva, the ‘jewellery tattoos’ of Mer and Rabari tribes of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Another tattoo studio that is giving Indian folk and indigenous art a new canvas is BorderLine Tattoos by Utsavi Jhaveri. The self taught tattoo artist practices hand poke tattoos, an original form of tattooing by hand before machines came through. Another tattoo artist called Arjet Amit claims to be India’s first Gond tribal tattoo artist. Amit spent years in the company of tribal artists to learn their craft and the significance of their motifs. He even fashioned his own hand-made wooden ‘godhana’ yatra, which he carves dense and elaborate nature-inspired metaphors for harmony and balance. 

Final thoughts

While traditional Indian art and tattoos have existed in India for centuries, it’s clear that it’s an art form that is slowly heading towards extinction and its preservation is dependent largely on the preservation of the art forms themselves. Traditional tattoo methods have become outdated and unhygienic as per modern standards but by keeping traditional art forms alive, tattoos from India’s glorious past can be preserved for future generations.

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