Seated All the SameLocation - Salawas
I knew very little about Sarguja district or 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.
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?
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.
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.
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 wall painting in Ram Keli’s home summarises the “ceremony” of Godna. Once a girl hits puberty, she gets her first tattoo or Godna. It takes about 8 days to finish the design. This girl is taken to secluded part of the farm or village where she lives under a tree till the entire process is done with. This is done so her family doesn’t see her bleeding and in pain, while the needles do their job. During the process, her companions gather around and sing in order to distract her from the pain.
Once the tattoos are done, there is a celebration, a chicken is sacrificed and alcohol is had. The offerings
are made to the local deity and the needles and other instruments are blessed. It is believed that on receiving such blessings, the girl does not get infected post tattoeing.
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.
Ram Keli makes a temporary tattoo on another lady’s forehead to demonstrate the process of this ancient art form.
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.
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.
Safiano bai, is another artist, who not only like Ram Keli trains and helps out villagers preserve this art by finding new canvasses for this art form, but also conducts workshops on it across India.
One of the dholak players of Jamgala village, is portrayed by Ram Keli in the wall art right behind him. The dholak is played during the celebration of the festival of Baisak.
Ram keli’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.
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.
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.
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.
The original tattoo work is minimalistic in nature. To bring in more colour to the sarees they embellish and add colours in the empty spaces between the simple lines.
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.
While not at the farms, the ladies work from 10 to 5 everyday, to create several masterpieces like this saree.
In the town of Ambikapur, Sarguja disticts headquarters, the art form is prominently on walls across, in a bid to raise awareness and drive tourism.
Detailed Godna artwork can also be seen on the walls of Chhattisgarh Handicraft Development Board’s Ambikapur office.
Sarees created by Godna artists are proudly displayed at the Chhattishgarh Handicraft Development Board’s Ambikapur office, in a bid to promote this new canvas and to keep the art alive.
A hand fan decorated with Godna motifs is another merchandise offered to the outsiders as a means to spread knowledge on this art form.
Through the town of Ambikapur, Godna motifs can be seen proudly displayed.
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.
While Godna may not be as rampant, some form of tattooing is still practised using modern needles and mechanised tools on locals, outsiders and tourists alike. The needles though are rarely changed, used repeatedly on everyone, making them a serious threat in the bargain.
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