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Meet the artist who keeps tribal tattoos in India

SCENE puts the spotlight on young people around the world who are breaking down barriers and creating change. Character-based shorts will inspire and amaze as these young change makers tell their extraordinary stories.

Design and pattern have always intrigued Amit Ajrel since childhood. Initially he was interested in drawing and painting. As he explored his artistic abilities, his interest in him organically evolved into tattooing. Amit learned about the Indian tribal tattoo tradition known as Godna.

“I thought this might be my signature style,” says Amit. “Tribal, but something that will have a meaning, something that is related to our culture”.

While researching the ancient practice, Amit came across the Baiga tribe, an aboriginal ethnic group in central India. With little information available, Amit traveled from his Delhi home to a small rural village in the state of Chhattisgarh to meet the women of the Baiga tribe who continue to practice the art of Godna.

“I learned that this is one of the oldest parts of Indian culture. This culture describes the history of India,” Amit told Scenes. “Most of the time, the information available is scarce, but we have people here who can explain the whole process to you.”

Tribal tattoo tradition

Godna is a centuries-old practice handed down for generations and performed by tribal groups in northern and central India. The artist uses a hand technique to tattoo elaborate motifs all over the body.

Traditionally in the Baiga tribe, Godna is mainly practiced by women and the signs represent the different stages of a woman’s life. Tattoos are an integral part of their identity, giving them a sense of pride and belonging to their tribe. A little girl born to a Baiga tribe receives her first forehead tattoo at the age of nine.

When a girl goes through puberty, marriage and childbirth, she gets more tattoos on her body. Each symbol has a different meaning. Different patterns act as identifying marks that distinguish one ethnic group and cultural area from another.

“A Godna on the forehead is a sign of the traditions of our tribe. Without a Godna, they are not considered part of the tribe,” says Mangla Bai, a Baiga tribal artist. “There are make-up and accessories, but after death you take nothing but Godna on your body.”

Store Godna

Mangla Bai fears Godna will soon be forgotten despite her centuries-old practice. The ancient custom was strongly influenced by modernization. “These days, I’m telling everyone, ‘This art is getting lost and it shouldn’t be stopped. At least one Godna forehead is essential to maintaining a symbol of your tribe,’” explains Mangla Bai.

Amit hopes to raise awareness of Godna’s tribes and culture through her tattoos, paintings and exhibits. “I focus on keeping Baiga as Baiga as it always has been. I focus on using the exact same patterns that generations have used within the community for centuries.” Amit explains. “If I learn, I can pass this knowledge on to people. This is how our dying art, like this tribal art on the verge of extinction, will be revived again.”

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