Three years ago, Shomil Shah got his first tattoo. He never looked back. Intrigued by the process, he decided to try it out; he soon bought a DIY stick and poke kit online, and started tattooing himself while living and working in London as a graphic designer. His fascination with tattoos was almost destined; around the same time, his mother regaled Shah with tales of his great grandmother, whose beautiful neck and arm tattoos had left vivid imprints on her.
India, and the world in fact, has had a rich tattoo tradition, going back to centuries when these markings would be symbolic of the person’s community, maybe even a permanent form of jewellery or done to commemorate a ritualistic rite of passage. These traditions, like the ink itself, started fading with time. Shah encountered the same hurdles when he tried to look up the history of his ancestor’s tattoos.
“My family is from Kutch, Gujarat and it was quite customary until a couple of generations back for people to have tattoos, especially the women. It came as quite a surprise to me that tattooing was in my family and part of our culture, but had skipped two generations,” he says, adding, “Sadly there weren't any photographs which showed the tattoos my great grandmother had, so I turned to the internet to try and research this tradition from Kutch, but very little information is actually out there or has been documented properly.”
My family is from Kutch, Gujarat and it was quite customary until a couple of generations back for people to have tattoos, especially the women. It came as quite a surprise to me that tattooing was in my family and part of our culture, but had skipped two generations
On the precipice of his own inking ambitions, Shah decided to use the ink that tied him to his family and started incorporating traditional designs into his hand-poke tattoo practice. His primary source of knowledge? Older women with tattoo markings! “I would start a conversation with anyone who I saw with these slightly faded and spread out markings, trying to understand what they meant, when they got them, where they got them, how they were done etc., and would take some photographs of them if they felt comfortable with it,” Shah describes, adding that his enthusiasm inspired many of his clients to send photos of markings on their grandparents, or even people they met on their travels.
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This marked the beginning of India Ink Archive - a rich repository of stories, and a visual archive of India’s indigenous tattoo traditions, deep under our skin and in our memories.
Tracing the Ink
The desire to trace his own tattoo roots took Shomil on an incredible journey into the past. Almost 6 months ago, Babli Bai, a 70-year-old woman from Mumbai became the India Ink Archive’s first subject. The markings on her arms, including motifs such as banana plants, a snake, scorpion and a lotus, gave an insight into her community’s tattoo rituals. 89-year-old Vithalbhai’s tattoos, which he got at the age of 5, tell the story of tattoos in Gujarat, where only rich people could afford to wear a watch, while others got a Trajva band (symbolic of the watch) tattooed on them.
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For this project, through his travels, Shomil learnt more about different states’ tryst with tattoos, and motifs which travelled with people from one tribe to another. “I have found similarities in some motifs which have been tattooed, sometimes thousands of miles apart, from very different communities. One such example is a simple line drawing motif of a collection of 4 V's, pointing in towards each other, variations of which can be seen in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, MP and Chattisgarh. In all of these places, the motif symbolises a flower, but in each region it is a different flower and likely one that is indigenous to the region. In Maharashtra, it is typically referred to as Kamal, or Lotus; in Gujarat it is the flower of Mitho Baval, or Acacia, and in MP/Chattisgarh it is Pindri ka Phool,” he elaborates.
Tattoo traditions, as Shomil described, are specific to regions and states, with a few overlapping design elements. Arunachal Pradesh's Apatani tribe used to tattoo its womenfolk. The headhunting Konyaks of Nagaland used to tattoo their faces to indicate their strength in warfare. Rabaris and Bharwads tribe in Gujarat were known for their elaborate Trajva tattoos, a mark of beauty and endurance. These are only a handful of tattoo traditions that marked India’s vibrant tribal culture.
Yet today, it is strange to note that the tradition of inking, which was a part and parcel of rural life, seems to have left its original home at the pretext of being ‘old-school’ and irrelevant to modern pursuits, and moved to reside majorly with the urban world, where tattooing is common today. “We are at an interesting juncture now where rural India is slowly letting go of tattooing, while urban India is seeing a rise in the popularity of tattoos, which is in some ways ironic as urbanisation of the country was one of the major reasons that led to the decline of traditional practises,” Shomil opines.
Straddling the Past and the Present
While there may not be a lot of information on the extensiveness of India’s tattoo traditions, Shomil believes we still have access to some scarce but rich resources - the skin of our elders with markings, old photos that tell the tale of time or “even anecdotal stories of that kasav (turtle) on your Nani’s arm or that bicchu (scorpion) on your Appa’s hand.” One such anecdote is close to Shomil’s heart - the Godna markings on Tyar who was Vena’s Ajee (grandmother). Vena’s family are Tamil descent Trinidadians and these markings were done in their village Pasea in Trinidad, carrying on a tradition that travelled across the oceans with them. Vena and her cousins have replicated some of their ajee’s tattoos on themselves.
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A Modern Homecoming
With a growing respect for their history, few modern artists like Shomil are going back to traditional ways and styles of tattooing. He takes inspiration from work of Moranngam Khaling, known as Mo Naga, a tattoo artist from Manipur who has been endeavouring to preserve the tattoo traditions of Northeast’s tribal cultures, and photographer Shatabdi Chakrabarti, who has been documenting diverse tattoo practises of India for over a decade.
Through the India Ink Archive he “hopes to document, collect and make accessible what remains of this ancient art form.” Shomil does not want to be known as a preserver of tribal tattoos. “I have only 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 or an academic on the topic. I'm also not taking on the role of being a saviour or reviver for the indigenous communities and their practises, but rather trying to celebrate the work and traditions and create awareness for people to then decide how they want to interact with these customs.”