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STORIES ON SKIN
NEHA MATHRANI

In the Baiga community, it is both sexes that ink their bodies with the intricate designs, called Godna. However it is for women especially that the tattoos are singular markers of identity. The women are well known for their elaborate body art.The tattooing is carried out by women tattoo artists from the Dewar, Badni and Ojha tribes of Madhya Pradesh and these women are called Godharins . It was customary for the knowledge of tattooing to be passed down matrilineally through the mothers.

In the heart of Central India, the state of Madhya Pradesh (quite literally translating into middle province) has a rich diversity of indigenous or ‘Adivasi’ peoples. Some of the tribes are the Bhils, Gonds, Korku, Kaul and of course the Baigas.

The Baiga community is primarily found in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and they areknown to refer to themselves as Bhumiaraja or Bhumijan . The word ‘Baiga’ can also refer to the village medicine man. They are a simple, open forest dwelling people who the Government of India has deemed a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. While they are known to be endogamous, this is not going a very long way in safeguarding their traditional customs and ways of life.


The advent of the modern era and globalisation have resulted in an increasing number of young Indian people defining their identities as citizens of the contemporary world by inking themselves in tattoos, borrowing this from Western culture where tattooing is often seen as an act of rebellion or of asserting one’s individuality. However, in India, tattooing the body has been an ancient tribal tradition, passed down from generation to generation. The indigenous people of India have a vast storehouse of traditional knowledge systems,of customs and wisdom which are mostly transmitted orally. The tradition of tattooing, of creating beautiful body art is a living tradition, a body of art that is preserved on the bodies of each tattooed individual. However, if every individual’s canvas is his or her body, the slow erosion of the importance of this tradition is seeing fewer canvas being inked.

Often, in the Baiga tribe, nearly the entire expanse of the body is adorned with artwork. The most prominentof these tattoos are the forehead tattoos sported mostly by the women. The designs begin from the head at the forehead then snake along the necks, arms, hands, legs, covering nearly all areas of the blank canvas that the human body provides. Here, the individual transforms into a living work of art, carrying with them the indelible marks of their social status and economic worth. In this way, the tattoos can be thought of living stories, inked onto the canvas of their bodies.

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