Published in villagesquare.in written by Indrani Ghose
Forehead tattoos – steeped in symbolism – used to distinguish Baiga tribal girls from the other tribes, but today few want them. Which is why Baiga tattoo artist Mangala Bai Marawi wants to preserve the tradition.
Tattoos on their foreheads is what makes the girls of the Baiga tribe stand out distinctly from other tribes, like Gond and Bhil.
And I’m one of the artists that put those tattoos on their forehead. Artists like me are called badnin. Since the Baiga tribal tattoo is done on girls, only women practise the art.
My mother was actively practising godna (tattooing). But in the last few years she hasn’t been keeping well and so she couldn’t practise.
As her youngest daughter I continue her tradition.
None of my four older sisters is interested in pursuing godna. Because they find it hard to make a living out of it.
I couldn’t go to school. So I accompanied my mother and aunt when they went for tattoo work in Baiga families.
I learnt by observing them and practising from a very young age.
I did my first godna on another young girl at the age of seven. Since then my skills have improved.
Tattooing the girls used to be our main source of income.
There’s hardly any investment in terms of money. But it’s a very time consuming process. In half an hour, we can complete only about one centimetre of tattoo.
The ink I use is made purely of natural substances. It’s mixed with the juice of different medicinal herbs.
I use godna for treating ailments too.
The Baiga men rarely get tattoos, except for treatment purposes. These tattoos are done with thin needles.
Earlier girls would start getting tattooed from as young as nine. As they grow, more tattoos are done on their hands, legs, thighs, back and on the chest after childbirth.
The patterns done at each stage have their own significance. They signify fire, crops, grains, peacocks, fish, beehives, flowers and more.
Sadly now they consider the tattoos as the bane of their life. Most members of the Baiga tribe shun this ancient tradition of tattooing.
Also they prefer modern tattoo designs and not the ancient symbols that have a lot of religious and cultural significance.
Modern tattooing is done with chemical inks. So the artists are able to bring in more variety in colours and designs.
That’s why not many opt for the tribal tattoo these days.
I’m worried that it’s just a matter of time – maybe another decade – when this tradition will completely vanish.
I hope to preserve the art form. So I’m now drawing the different designs on charts and canvasses.
Sometimes I get invited to different cities. I take those opportunities to display the Baiga tribal tattoo art and create awareness about it.
I am teaching this art to one of my nieces so that this knowledge passes on.
If the government conducts camps, I’m willing to teach our Baiga art of tattooing.
I feel the government should encourage the girls by offering some incentive to preserve this culture and heritage.
That would instill some pride in them to wear our tattoo on their forehead.
Reporting and photographs by Indrani Ghose, a Bengaluru-based freelance photographer and travel writer who writes about art, culture and cuisines of travel destinations.