Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Scratching the surface......

Never has such a fuss been made over tattoos.

Baywatch-ian Ms. P. Anderson and her erstwhile husband get tattoos done with the same needle to exhibit their erstwhile togetherness, and then crib about Hepatitis C, and split, probably in reverse order. Newspapers report religiously about some current hear throb tattooing something insignificant on an
even more insignificant part of his or her anatomy. Some kind of west centric fashion diktats followed slavishly by the "in"-folks spur a temporary upsurge in some businesses in India, and tattoos appear to be one of those.

As a child, one saw tattoos and took it for granted, just like the red dot (kunku or tikka) on the forehead of women in our families. Its not that women in your family had tattoos; but chances are, if your household consisted of an old great grandmother or grandmother , who earlier possibly lived in a native rural area, you probably saw a small design or spot on her forehead. You noticed tattooes on the arms of, say your household help, or your daily vegetable vendor lady, or the lady who delivered the pooja (worship) flowers to your house everyday. One didn't think too much about it and attributed it to the different background milieu of those ladies.

With the current brouhaha about tattooes, one took another look.

Sagunabai , one of the great ladies featured on this blog earlier, almost 80, has a host of figures tattooed on her right arm. Pictures of folks from the Ramayana, one of our religious epics, are prominent. Then another thing is the pictures of deities from Maharashtra's very well known pilgrim centre, Pandharpur. Then there is a bluish spot in the middle of her forehead. And something that looks like a branch and leaves on the inner side of the forearm. Contrary to research that says that tattooes were a sign of branding,ownership,groupings etc, it turns out that when Sagunabai was a little girl, this was a "hot" thing to do.

There was hardly any social life in an agrarian patriarchal milieu, in rural areas. Whatever was there was always related to religion. But there were some artist ladies who came home with special needles and vegetable dyes prepared right there, and an indulgent parent would let the little girls of the family get certain things tattooed , say, on the arms, and palms and fingers.

The choice was always amongst scripture personalities, and nature. Amazingly, the most popular tattoo seen on Sagunabai and her friends' hands is of the Tulsi(basil leaf), which has much religious and medical significance. Maybe it had also something to do with the fact that devotees always wore necklaces made out of basil/tulsi seeds. There was never a problem of things turning septic, bursting with infection and so on. And the lady who came to do this, was often compensated with a homely meal and some great produce from the fields. There were no fixed rates and no appointments.

Today, Sagunabai needs glasses to see her own tattoos, and her wrinkled and sagging skin has made all the gods look geriatric too. I guess its fun growing old together.

Sagunabai's daughter, Kumkum, also featured on this blog earlier, around 50, who helps me with the housework, has very different tattoos. By the time, she was a little girl, village fairs were looked forward to. You always went for them with a gaggle of your friends. Women were a bit more free socially then, and the fashion then was more about eternal friendship tattoos. Gods had gone out of fashion, and Sagunabai's daughter and her 2 girlfriends, had identical tattoos done on their hands in the village fair. Nothing alarming, just all their 3 names one below the other. This was amazing artwork, for 3 girls who never went to school , cannot read, and today, only know how to sign their names. To them their signatures, like their tattoos , were just another design. But 40 years down the line, everyone remembers the names of girls in that group.

"Tattoo ladies" coming home, often did the spots in the middle of the forehead for these girls, along with some "beautyspots " on the face .Sometimes, intricate designs on the wrist and hands. When I questioned Kumkum about this , she had an interesting explanation. She said the tattooing of the forehead spot ,had to do with the fact that Moslems did not have this custom. A red dot was put daily, and was removable. This was not. It identified you . Mothers insisted on daughters getting this done. Maybe a result of oral history of invasions being passed down the generations, for safety of little girls who never went to school, to learn history.

I asked her about the attitudes to tattoos when marriage happened. . She just waived her hand as if it wasn't anything worth discussing further. Tattoos were stuff that girls enjoyed getting done with their friends. There wasn't anything like forbidden tattoos. When marriages happened, Tattoos was the last thing anyone concerned themselves with. Most of the time the bride and groom saw each other the morning of the wedding day.

I asked her, if girls, got names of boys tattooed on their arms . (There had to be some girls in society treading a dangerous path. ) Well, yes it seems, but many times, the women would get their children's names tattooed on their arms. Occasiionally , prior to marriage, a girl would have her brother's name tattooed. However, in a society where husbands were never addressed in the second person singular or by their first names, she hadn't known anyone who had their husband's name tattooed on their arm.

I was just thinking what would happen if people in the West, say Hollywood had this custom. Freer social customs would encourage spouse name tattooes. Everytime a husband or wife got replaced, or changed, there would be a new tattoo. Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Madonna, etc would be the most decorated folks. In situations where marriages are done in secret, TV cameras would zero in on someones arm to see if a new name has been tattooed.

In this information age, when information can be transmitted, detected, and used in so many ways, maybe tattooing can be considered an organic method of propagating information.

I am on to some new research :-) . More about that in the next post.


  1. Very well written and I liked this post very much.

    Particularly the last line is very interesting. Expecting more of this kind of writings,

  2. I had a good laugh over the much married Hollywood stars having a tattoo of their spouses names on their arms. Would it be an advertising ploy to see who had the most marriages? A contest could start.

    My oldest granddaughter was born with a birthmark in the middle of her forehead. When she was a toddler they had it removed but before that happened we were in a museum when a woman from India stopped us and told us to never have it removed. It was a lucky mark and, if removed, the child would have bad luck. Interesting.

    I guess when something bad happens to her in her life she can blame her parents for having her lucky mark removed.

  3. I, too, thought the part about the Hollywood stars funny. Some of them could not get all the names on their arms! It is amazing to me how old this tradition of the tattoo actually is. My twins each have a small rose tattoo right below their waist. I never had the desire to have one myself. You asked about Lincoln's patent. You can read about it at this site:
    I enjoyed this post very much.

  4. This is a very interesting post. I wasn't sure when I first started reading, because I think tatoos are foolish. My thinking is just as you said about the gods growing old with you, but in the US they don't get tattoos of any gods. It seems sad to see an older lady with an outdated tattoo forever on her.

    Oh yes, I remember my grandmother called her husband by his last name and her father by his as well.. I thought it very odd, but there was two generational gaps between us. I think I caused her a great deal of grief for which I am sorry. Times had changed a great deal since she had been a girl.

  5. I agree with Vivek. Plus one more thought: isn't it curious that tattoos, which are symbolic of permanence, are flourishing as expressions of emotions in an are where all emotions are short-lived?

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  7. I always leave your blog knowing something I did not know before. I love that.
    My son offered to get the word "Mom" tattooed, inside a heart, on his arm at the age of 13. I declined the honor, but only in deference to his beautiful and unmarred skin.
    Kinda wish I'd allowed it.

  8. Thats interesting !! whew a lot of research too...

    too much hype bout karina tattoo on saif's name eh !!!

    these females are uber cool doing it for ages !!!

  9. luved ur blog ... especially the pictures that tell a thousand stories by itself

  10. "Today, Sagunabai needs glasses to see her own tattoos, and her wrinkled and sagging skin has made all the gods look geriatric too."

    I guess its fun growing old together. That made me laugh so. That post was very interesting and its great to learn about your culture and life there. Truly. Thnak you. I enjoy each and everyone of your posts so much.

  11. Vivek Thank you . Its always illuminating to talk to Sagunabai and her daughter ....the latter who I see everyday :-)

    Darlene Thank you. My household help is here right now, and I did check your granddaughters birthmark stuff with her. And yes, it is supposed to be auspicious.....

    JudyThank you, and yes I will look up the link on patents that you sent....

    Amber Star Thank you.

    SucharitaYour observation about the usage of tattoos today is spot on. Earlier it was a matter of belief and faith. Today its all fashion and display.

    Pearl Thank you. And I am so relieved that you stopped your son from doing a tattoo in your honor...

    Hitch writer I have never understood this thing about exhibitionism. For Saif, a chap who has had one wife, one mistress, and one steady girlfriend, carving a particular name isnt going to stop his eye from roving.... I guess he can always tattoo the other hand too....who cares really ?

    sandeep Thank you. And welcome to the blog...

    LillyThank you. And yes, that Sagunabai is really cool....its always fun talking to her, and I always feel so foolish at the end of it :-)