Ten years ago, in love with India and having a certain interest in tattooing, I decided to make a book on tattooing in India, and to benefit indirectly from the previous 10 years spent studying graphic art and religions in India, subjects that fed my first 5 books.
The vast spectrum of Indian tattooing offers 3 perspectives: first, the modern and urban tattooing, then, in 2007, close to zero; second, the street tattooing intimately linked to popular culture, made of hearts, crosses, bizarre dragons, skulls, names and surnames, Aum, Ganesh and other gods of the vast Hindu pantheon, street practice but that one meets mainly during these big religious gatherings that one calls “mela”; and third, ancestral tattooing, a practice of tribal cultures, of those people whose habits and customs disappear under the steamroller of the modern majority culture.
Of these three important aspects of tattoo culture, the last captivated most of my attention. To meet these peoples from one dead end of the world, to witness the past wisdoms and ancestral beliefs at bay, to hit the road for unlikely investigations, to discover unsuspected worlds and improbable peoples, but also to discover and safeguard beautiful patterns and their meanings, that’s what I liked the most.
Of these ten years spent in the Indian subject, to its various peoples, including some heirs of a very ancient cultural heritage, one of the most beautiful encounters was the one I did with the Baiga, farmers and naturopaths of Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of the vast Indian territory.
It had been six years since I started to investigate the topic when I met them. I had already swallowed a few kilograms of dust in the back of busted buses (and sometimes without windows) or driving motorcycles on roads often potholed; that I had devoured a few thousand kilometers by train, 2nd Class sleeper often crowded; that I got a few vertebraes messed up at the back of motorized rickshaws with tired suspensions and wide-opened-air, traveling to collect information, trying to clear the facts from the fiction. And finally, at the dead end of a world I met the famous Baiga and some members of the caste who tattoo them, Badni (or Badi).
Here is the story of my meeting with the Badni in the first place, then that of the Baiga as I have never written, neither on my blog (https.godispop.blog4ever.com) nor in my book «L’Inde sous la peau» (India under the skin), the reality could have scared some of my family members and friends. Relatives have asked me to tell it as it is. Doing it for “Tattoo Life” seems to me to be a great opportunity.
It was in December 2014 that I disembarked in a village in Dindori District, east of Madhya Pradesh. This region is home to many Baiga, farmers known for their knowledge of plants and their benefits. The women of this community are the most tattooed you can meet in India. Some women from other ethnic groups in Orissa (now called Odisha) have even more tattooed faces, but when it comes to the body, the Baiga women’s is by far the most inked on the peninsula.
In this village I quickly met a local doctor, Vijay Chourasia, who has been interested in the Baiga for a long time and has already written a book about them. This doctor told me that the Baiga call on to another social group for tattooing, the Badni, a Banjara subgroup. They practice their art of inking by hand, without an electric machine, during big religious holidays or sometimes at home. Before going to meet the Baiga, I decided to visit the Badni, some of whom live in a small village in the middle of the fields, about ten kilometers from the village where I had rented a room.
The Maravi, from the Badni social group, are a charming family of six: the father Chamar Singh, his wife Shanti Bai, and their four daughters. In the family everyone
tattoo, the mother being the most experienced. She told me that I will not be able to see tattoo sessions on Baiga women in this season, the latter being not in a favorable financial situation in January. It is necessary to wait until the end of March and the income from the harvest. Then they are tattooed until May when the heat becomes too high, favoring the risk of infection.
In 6 years of research I had never been able to witness handmade tattoos, and I absolutely wanted to bring back images of such a practice. Since it would not be possible for the Baiga, I looked around to see that I was going to be the guinea pig, despite the apprehension of being inked under more than questionable hygiene conditions. The Maravi encouraged me to do it. Sure that for them there was a banknote into the bargain, but for me, alone and 300 kilometers from a decent hospital, it was a nice jump into the unknown and the unexpected.
While waiting to make up my mind, Chamar Singh and Shanti Bai unfolded before me a set of Baiga motifs (intended only for this group, the same for all) and Gond motifs (intended for all other socio-ethnic groups in the region). In anticipation of the impending disappearance of this ancient practice, Shanti Bai had the good idea to reproduce on paper the motifs she has been inscribing under the skin for so long, an exceptional testimony that sometimes serves as her catalog.
Finally I decided to jump into the void, to get a tattoo on my left ankle. I was going to have my report, praying nevertheless all the gods of India so that at the end of this session I keep my left foot.
Shanti Bai improvised on paper a motif inspired by the Baiga culture. Out of respect for this culture, I did not want to copy and paste one of their motifs. Once this step was over, Shanti Bai made me lay down on a mattress put on the dusty floor of an outbuilding of their main house. Then using a piece of bamboo and a homemade ink made of soot retrieved from the burning of a particular seed, she duplicated the pattern on my skin. When finally came the big moment: the poking. Shanti Bai approached her tattooing tool, some metal needles attached to each other by black thread and surmounted by a cotton ball they hold between the thumb and forefinger, far from the skin, which seems to me not helping the precision of the poking. But as I will observe it afterwards: the precision does not matter to them.
In a last attempt to limit the damage, I seized her tool and, with the help of my lighter, heated up the tip of the needles which would penetrate my skin. Once the needles cooled down, Shanti Bai took these tips just “disinfected” between her thumb and forefinger “not too disinfected” to remove the lamp black. Grimace on my part. Then I said to myself: “So be it, we must all die one day”.
Then the session started, 1 hour 30 of poking, passing in the hands of Shanti Bai, Chamar Singh and Mangla, their youngest daughter. The technique is simple: you ink the skin and then you poke. I should say you deep-poke. Epidermis, dermis, hypodermis, all that is the same thing to them. With the Badis you get your money worth. And the days when they drink too much tea or coffee I suspect them to poke to the bone.
After having poked a first time, a bit blindly, they put another coat of ink on the pattern and they poke a second time. Here we do not do things by half.
Once the tattoo was done, the ankle fully anesthetized, Mangla cleaned the work site with a mixture of water and cow dung. Then she dried my skin with a cloth that looked clean and applied a thick mixture of turmeric (disinfectant) and mustard oil (soothing). According to the translation of my local interpreter who spoke English as I speak Moldovian, I had to clean my new tattoo with water and then apply this mixture twice a day and for four days. If the Baiga, famous for their knowledge of medicinal plants found nothing to complain about, it must work.
The last step was the most reassuring. Chamar Singh, some flowers in hand, came to recite a mantra to my ankle. Hare Om … .. and good luck.
Then the big adventure really began, a few days of rollercoaster in the head.
To be continued…
Text and photos by Stephane Guillerme
Follow Stéphane Guillerme on Instagram: @stephane.guillerme