Fading Out

The dying art of traditional tattooing

22 September 2014
Entire systems of symbology and meaning associated with traditional tattoos are disappearing.
Akhilesh Shukla
Entire systems of symbology and meaning associated with traditional tattoos are disappearing.
Akhilesh Shukla

EVERY YEAR, 42-year-old Habbu Ali waits eagerly for the month of Shravan on the Hindu calendar, which stradles July and August on the Gregorian one. Ali belongs to a family of traditional tattoo artists, for whom Shravan, considered the holiest month of the year, is a time of peak business. This year, however, he was badly disappointed. Even after visiting numerous villages and melas around his home village of Khewrajpur, in Uttar Pradesh’s Allahabad district, Ali found only a small number of customers.

“Every year the demand for tattoos is diminishing,” he told me when I visited in August. Sitting outside his thatch-roofed house, he looked frail, and older than his 42 years. “I only made around five dozen tattoos this season. A decade ago, I used to get that much business in one or two days time.”

Many generations of Ali’s ancestors made a living from their art, but Ali, a father of 11 children, no longer can. Average incomes from tattooing, he said, are down to at most Rs 1,500 a month. “I don’t want my kids to take this profession forward,” he said, “and neither do they.” To make ends meet, he has opened a bicycle repair shop.

As tastes and beliefs change, practices of traditional tattooing are dying out in much of India. And as those practices fade away, they threaten to take with them entire lexicons of symbols and meanings that have endured for centuries.

In north India, and especially among Hindu communitties, tattoos were once widely believed to possess remarkable powers. A tattoo on a woman’s forehead, for example, was thought to promote the safe delivery of children. Tattoos also represented financial status, and carried social meaning. A girl married without a tattoo was taunted that her parents were mean and poor, and every married woman was supposed to have a Sita ki rasoi tattoo—the name translates to “Sita’s kitchen”—considered a charm for women managing a household. Another popular tattoo for young women involved five dots in a cross, representing the five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharat—a reminder for brides-to-be to live amicably with their bothers-in-law, as Draupadi did. Other designs were meant to ward off the evil eye, and myriad forms of misfortune.

Akhilesh Shukla is a Delhi-based independent journalist and photographer.