I was sent on an assignment by Asian Paints to Jamgala village in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh state, to capture the ancient practise of body art or tattooing known as Godna. The objective was to explore the village, capture its various colours and investigate what inspires this art form and what is the direction it has taken. Asian Paints intend to define new colour palettes based on this photo-report.
On entering Jamgala village, I experienced various shades of green, blue and maroon throughout as against the boring, blue tarpaulin covered rooftops of my city.
Off on an adventure
I knew very little about Sarguja district of Jamgala village when I first set out, and even lesser about Godna, but the idea of learning more about this waning tribal tattoo art had me hooked.
Come back later?
Being farming season, the villagers were out inspecting their crops and most of the village doors were locked. Was I going to have to return another day?
Driving away the blues
The sight of these colourful doors in Jamgala though, kept me going. Apart from the vibrant design on the door, the beautiful door frame is what caught my attention.
Women on top
At last I was lucky to meet up with Ram Keli, one of the leading artists in Chhattisgarh region, who along with her group, is responsible for reviving the dying art of Godna by transferring the tattoo designs onto sarees,bedsheets and other merchandise.
Bejewelled for life
The word Godna is derived from “gehna” or jewellery, with these tattoos made usually made around body parts where jewellery was worn, in the belief that this jewellery will be adorned till the end of life and beyond.
Tattoos were made once a girl hit puberty and the artists were mostly women.
Typically tattoos are made around the ankles, toes, fingers, the wrists, palms, thighs and breasts. For men, on forearms, back and shoulders.
This painting on the wall of Ram Keli’s abode, summarises the “ceremony” of Godna. Once the female hits puberty, she gets her first tattoo or Godna. It takes about 8 days for the tattoo artist to finish the design. This young girl is taken to secluded part of the farm or village and she has to live there, under a tree till the entire process is done with. This is done so her family doesn’t see her bleeding and doesn’t hear her screams, while the needles do their job on her skin.
A stack of three needles is bound together tightly by a string and used to make the tattoos or Godna. Though unfamiliar with the term acupuncture, the tattoos are also spoken of as having healing powers with a specific Godna for a bad back or painful joints. While Godna differs from tribe to tribe, this practise also made it easier for them to recognise their own.
Learning from the expert
Ram Keli makes a temporary tattoo on another lady’s forehead to demonstrate the process of this ancient art form.
Tools of the craft
Godna is done only during winters, where the flowers of a specific tree from the jungle along with ash/soot obtained from mitti ka tel (kerosene) are used to make the traditional Godna tattoo colours.
From head to toe
With every life event more tattoos are added and the elderly women can be seen covered in several tattooes on their forearms and legs.
Increasingly over time the newer generation has begun to stop this body tattooing tradition and only few are now seen with these on their arms.
Passing it down
Safiano bai, is another artist, who not only like Ram Keli trains and help out villagers preserve this art, by finding new canvasses for this art form, but also conducts workshops on it across India.
Art in real life
The wall art in Ram Keli’s house also showcases the different festivals and culture of the place. Seen here is one of the dholak players of Jamgala village, against an image of him playing the dholak and mingling at the fanfare during Baisakh celebrations.
Back to basics
Ram eli’s husband sits against the decorated walls of their house that she herself has painted with motifs and stories about the festivals they celebrate.
To keep the art alive, Ram Keli and the other women of the village have started drawing these tattoos now onto sarees, amongst other things, using the familiar to create yet another art form that they can adorn.
Working from home
The work on these sarees invariably is done within one of the ladies’ houses itself. In this case, the work is being done at Ram Keli’s house, as the children play around.
Experience is the one true guide
The artist lady here is drawing an imaginary line from her right to left, to understand the correct distance and alignment between the two motifs just as she would while making a tattoo. No ruler or any other geometrical device is used while designing.
The art lives on
While the canvas may have changed, the motifs and forms used on the sarees are still the same or inspired from the original tattoo form.
Bringing in colour
The original tattoo work is minimalistic in nature, and to bring in vibrancy to the sarees they now embellish, colours are filled in the empty spaces between the simple lines.
Flowers in bloom
Ram Keli delicately paints a thin red border over a painted flower. It takes any time between 7 days to a month to complete work on one saree, depending on the complexity of the design. These sarees are then priced between Rs.2000 and Rs.10,000.
The ladies display a bedsheet painted using the Godna motifs that they had been working on. The art is being revived by transferring this asset on to bedsheets, sarees, pillow covers as also on walls and other handicrafts.
Of many colours and shades
While not at the farms, the ladies work from 10 to 5 veryday, to create several masterpieces like this saree.
In the town of Ambikapur, Sarguja isticts headquarters, the art form is prominently on walls across, in a bid to raise awareness and drive tourism.
While waiting for the flowers that form the base of the Godna ink to bloom, the tribals are involved with farming through the monsoons. Outside the temple of Bhoramdev (Shankar) while several Hindu devotees throng the gates, tribals from adajcent areas come to these settlements to sell their farm produce.
Tattooing, at the market, is now practised using modern needles and mechanised tools on locals, outsiders and tourists alike: needles that are rarely changed and unsafe, and motifs that are all too different from the original art form. Thanks to new canvases though, the art hopefully will continue to survive.
All photos by Sukrit Nagaraj