Picture: Kochaan, a traditional Hindu tattoo design worn by woman before getting married, is supposed to protect the bearer from the evil eye. It is now fading from people’s memory.
It was the last week of August when I walked into Taukalpur, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, some 410 miles south-west of India’s capital of New Delhi.
A small ghetto, dominated by mud houses with thatched roofs, of some 80-odd families stands apart from the rest of the village. It is impossible to miss the signs of poverty there.
It was evening, the sun was setting in the west, and smoke was coming out of most of the roofs, a sign of dinner being cooked on the traditional chula - a kind of wood-fuelled stove made of mud. A few children, mostly dressed in vests and briefs, were playing some games unknown to me. When I enquired, I was surprised to find that none of them attend school.
The ghetto in Taukalpur is home to traditional tattoo artists. Almost every home has one, in a profession handed down through the generations.
The plight of traditional tattooists
Traditional Hindu tattoo designs have lost out to modern tattoo art, which has become a fashion statement in 21st-century India. People now visit tattoo artists in posh studios, where you have to book an appointment in advance to get inked. Yet they shy away from shelling out few thousand rupees ($1 = Rs 50).
The rise in modern tattoo art has had an impact on the traditional tattoo artists, who find it hard to get business.
“This season I have only made around five dozen tattoos”, laments Imran Ali, 41 and father of 11 children. “A decade ago, I used to get such business in just two days. No one wants the designs we have mastered.”
Ali, who looks older than his age, has taken up bicycle repairs as his full-time profession to make ends meet. Tattoo art for him is now a hobby that brings him extra earnings. His story is no different from that of other residents in his ghetto.
Most of the artists I spoke to have a passion for their art, but as they can no longer make a living from it they are forced to take up other small-time trades such as motor mechanic, barber or washer man, etc. Some have been reduced to daily wage labour.
Importance of tattoos
The importance of traditional tattoos in Hindu society is reflected in a folk song from Gujarat’s agrarian Mer community.
Listen, O Rama, uncle, brothers and grandfather, O Rama
Mother and aunt and all return from the gateway, O Rama
These tattoos are my companions to the funeral pyre, O Rama.
In some communities, the tattoos represented the financial status of the bearer’s family. A woman who married without tattoos would be taunted that her parents were “mean and poor”. It was a common belief that a tattoo kept the body organs healthy and functioning properly. A tattoo on the forehead promoted the safe delivery of a child.
In modern India, these designs are losing the meaning and myths associated with them and they are not recognised by the younger generation.
“These tattoos have no meaning. They were made without any reasons”, says Mithila Kumari, a 35-year-old amehandi artist. I met her in the first week of September outside Hanuman Temple campus in Conaught Place, a posh market in the centre of New Delhi. Mithila has one of the most common traditional tattoo designs on her right hand called Sita Ki Rasoi (Sita’s kitchen). Sita was the wife of the Hindu god Lord Rama.
Another very common tattoo, consisting of five dots in a circular shape, represents the five Pandavas of the Indian religious epic, Mahabharata. It is a reminder for every woman to live amicably with her in-laws. Draupadi, the female protagonist of Mahabharata, was married to five brothers.
The tipping point
The Hindu month of Shravan, which falls between July and August, is considered to be the most auspicious time to get inked. The residents of Taukalpur’s ghetto await the month throughout the year.
But this year the excitement quickly faded away. Business was the worst ever, despite the artists cycling round all the villages and attending local fêtes. Most of them returned home disappointed.
The advent of colour in tattoo art has also hurt the traditional tattooists. The new machines are expensive and ink is not available in rural areas, so the artists have to stick to handmade machines and are limited to black and white designs.
Younger boys have also started to avoid getting inked since the Indian army and paramilitary forces, the biggest employer in these areas, started disqualifying applicants with tattoos.
One evening, at the end of August, the village elders decided not to carry the legacy forward.
“There is no point carrying out this art. We have neither the money nor the skills to take up the modern art. Its better for us to try new professions”, says Waseeb Ahemad. The overweight father of three, 43, is among a few in the village who have not taken alternative employment. His disappointment and fear of future is visible in his shining, small eyes.
Experts say that the art has undergone transformation several times in the past. The meaning of the tattoo art has changed but has stayed relevant to the people and society in one form or another.
“Earlier tattoos were worn for religious purposes. They then became identified with social hierarchy, occupation and then caste. Today they have become a fashion statement”, says Dr Swapna Samel on the phone to me from Mumbai. She has published research under the title “Religious Tattoos: Their Sociocultural Significance in Indian Society”.
As the artists have decided not to continue the culture they represent, it is difficult to guess at the survival of traditional designs. But tattoo art will stay relevant to Indian society in a newer way. The artists in their posh studios will carry the legacy forward in their own way.