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How The Godna Project Is Bringing The Indigenous Tattoo Artists To The Forefront

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

Headed by Sahana Rao, the Godna Project endeavours to bring the ‘godna’ artists together, with the aim of conserving the traditional tattoo culture of Adivasis. The event organized on the 8th and 9th of October 2022, in Delhi, was one step in this direction.

Picture at display during the exhibition held by the Godna Project, 2022

"Our aim is to bring the indigenous youth closer to their culture and heritage so that they have a sense of belongingness. We want to generate awareness around indigenous cultures and art forms. This is the only way to stop indigenous heritage from disappearing"- Sahana Rao

On the 8th and 9th of October, the Godna Project facilitated talks, discussions, workshops and a photo exhibition dedicated to the age-old Adivasi culture of tattooing. The event was held at the Khuli Khirkee studio in Delhi. In recent years there has been an increase, not only in the trend of tattooing but also in the commercialization of this art form, which has been an integral part of the Adivasi way of life for a long time. While the traditional art of tattooing involved Adivasis, mostly women, using traditional items like kajal, needles, oil, haldi and cow-dung, in the contemporary commercialized art of tattooing, machines and synthetic colours have replaced them.

Godna designs of various Adivasi communities; PC: Pushpika Sapna Bara

“Our ancestral art form is dying”, said Lakhami Nag, an Ojha godna artist from Bastar. Bastar is located in the southern part of Chhattisgarh, covered with dense forests and is inhabited by various Adivasi communities. Tattooing has been an integral part of the lives of the Adivasis residing here. This art form has been passed from one generation to the other and hence is regarded as traditional/ancestral work. Kevala Nag, another Ojha woman, accompanying Lakhami, managed to convey through her broken Hindi, that they had left their villages to travel such a long distance for the first time. She is also a godna artist. It was their first time travelling by train. Nonetheless, their fierce and indomitable spirits are an inspiration. Lakhami stated that if they don’t travel or take risks, they will not be able to save this endangered art form. She opined that if they travelled more, they could get the opportunity to showcase the godna art form, generate awareness and save their ancestral art. She talked about the early days when they were called by different villages for their work. “We used to go to the nearby villages on our own, and our husbands would accompany us to distant villages”, said Lakhami. “These days very few people call us. The younger generation is not interested in godna”, she continued. One of the main aims of the Godna Project is to create awareness and make the Adivasi youth conscious of their history, culture and art forms.

Lakhami and Kevala Nag with traditional items for the godna art; PC: Pushpika Sapna Bara

Hansi Bai and Mangala Bai, belonging to the badi-badnin community, have been tattooing the Baigas and Gonds of Madhya Pradesh. They have been travellers and agree that the godna culture has declined drastically over the years. They are experts at Baiga godnas. In the Baiga community, the women would traditionally get their first godnas at the age of eleven. They would then continue getting godnas at various ages on different body parts. As they hit puberty, they would begin getting godnas on their waists, backs and chest areas. As this culture is declining, some young Baiga women argue that the visibility of godnas makes them easily identifiable as the ‘other’, making them vulnerable to discrimination and violence.

Godna designs from Bastar; PC: Pushpika Sapna Bara

The designs and styles used by the Ojha godna artists, and the ones used in Baiga godnas are very different. However, it is interesting to note that both the godna art forms symbolized varied forces of nature. There were depictions of the sun, peacocks, birds, trees and the like. While the godnas from Bastar were mostly concentrated on arms, legs and shoulder areas, the Baiga godnas covered almost the entire body, including the head, neck, shoulder, chest, back, waist, arms and legs. The godnas are usually done on both women and men, however, the godna artists are mostly women.

Godna designs from the Baiga community; PC: Pushpika Sapna Bara

It was interesting to witness these artists creating beautiful godna designs. In the beginning, they use kajal to draw designs. Then they use needles over these kajal designs. Usually, three rounds of piercings are done over the kajal designs. “When we pierce over kajal, it enters into the pores of the skins and gives the black colour to the godnas”, said Bai, while working meticulously on one of her customers. Nag stated that they use cow dung to wash and clean the designs once they are done. Then some haldi is applied to them to prevent infections and other skin problems. Finally, oil is applied over them. Nag also explained that after the godna is complete, if one uses soap and water to rinse, the black colour given to the godnas by kajal disappears, hence they use traditional items like cow dung, haldi and oil to rinse and clean. They not only preserve the colour but also act as antiseptics and anti-inflammatory agents.

Bai creating meticulous Baiga godna; PC: Pushpika Sapna Bara

Godna artists from Northeast and South India were also invited by the Godna Project. Unfortunately, the godna artists from South India could not make it. Mo Naga, a godna artist belonging to the Uipo community of Manipur, shared valuable insights as to how the disappearing traditional practice of godna can be conserved. He strongly believes that the present generation from all communities should be exposed to the godna art forms. Awareness and education are the only ways of conserving the godna culture. He has endeavoured to record the history and practice of godna since 2008. In the process he became a revivalist; travelling, documenting and practising the art of godna in the Northeast. He also focuses on hand-tapped tattooing. This method uses sticks to pierce the skin. A thorn is tied to one end of a stick. This stick is then dipped into pigments and placed on the skin, while another stick is used to hammer the former. The pigment/ink for the godna is often collected from saps of trees.

Mo Naga; PC: Pushpika Sapna Bara

The godna culture is on the decline not only due to the lack of awareness among individuals but also because of the market structures that favour the commercialization of all art forms. The intention remains to garner maximum profits by selling maximum products/services. This requires producing more in less time; hence machines and technological equipment are used, and customers are charged high prices. The reach and capacity of commercialized markets drive indigenous and traditional products and arts to the margins, rendering them invisible. Hence, they disappear over time. Conserving the godna culture is not only important from the lens of identity, but also from the perspective of nature. In the entire process of godna, nature-friendly items are used like sticks, kajals, tree saps, etc; unlike synthetic colours, pigments, plastics, etc that are used by the commercialized markets of tattooing.

About the Author:- The author is a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interest areas include Gender, Rights and Public Health. She has also served as a guest faculty of Political Science and International Relations, at the University of Delhi.


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