A drawing conversation

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In January this year, I stayed for a month in Kawasoti in Nepal as part of the artist in residence program by Photo KTM5. The residency provided us the time and scope to observe closely, interact and find out more about the actual people and communities instrumental in the conservation and success of the world famous Community Forests of Nepal. One of the dominant tribe of the region is the Tharu people. Traditionally, it was mandatory for the women folk of the tribe to have tattoos. The elderly and the middle age women in the villages nearby had beautiful intricate tattoos on their hands, around the chest and legs. The younger women and girls don’t get tattoos done anymore on their body. They find it painful, unsafe and do not want something permanent. The tattoos on the body of these women will perish with their death and so will the tradition. 

I was keen on finding more about the drawing aspect of these tattoos and how do the tattoo makers respond to the form, line and the surface(skin in this case). After several attempts by our host and environment activist Shri DB Chaudhary, we found about two women who used to make tattoos. I decided to meet them. Along with me, the other two resident artists also accompanied. We got late and they went to the fields to continue their work. It was the season for cutting of crops and preparing the land for the next harvest. Everyone was busy. We waited for a while. People in the neighbourhood knew about them making tattoos and seeing the three of us totally understood the purpose of the visit. One of them informed that some other tourists visited the women a few days back.

After a while Guljari ji and Sharada ji came back from the fields. We found out their names at that moment. Before that they were the women who make tattoos. We greeted each other and the conversation began. All of us had several questions. Gradually the conversation became almost an interview where the artist’s gaze was dominant. Anyway, I found out that they learnt to make tattoos from a tattoo artist who visited their paternal village when they were little girls. It seems the tattoo artist who visited their village was from India. Both of them are old now but not very old. They both have grandchildren. But then women would get married early and the gradual progression to motherhood and other phases of life followed. It was difficult to tell their exact age. They themselves were not very sure. They spoke about life in general, how earlier they were invited to make tattoos on different occasions. Now, no one is interested. For that matter, Guljari ji’s daughter had very few tattoo on her hands and that too very small; almost like fulfilling a criteria or a ritual. Her granddaughter who had just comeback from school clearly mentioned she doesn’t want any of that on her body. This claim on her body by a young girl seemed free spirited. At the same time her reaction seemed tinged with a colonial hangover that discouraged indigenous traditions and homogenized notions like what it is to be civilized or developed or beautiful in this case. Also as they are aging, their weak eye sight is failing to support the craft. They showed us the needles and handmade handles they created with wool and rope to hold the needle. They too confirmed that a group of tourists came few days back. After some time we returned. 

I decided to visit them once more. This time I went alone. I had informed them earlier. The second time I visited them, they seemed more relaxed. I carried some images of my drawings and shared my drawings with them. To me it felt appropriate to have a dialogue about images, patterns, and ways of drawing rather than only focussing  on the dying tradition of tattoo making in their community. I not only assumed but I believe that engaging with image making must have had an influence on their thinking , personality and other aspects of life and vice-versa.  They were happy to see my work and looked at it closely. They were interested but it did not involve any naive sensation or awe. The art – the act of drawing probably diluted that. While there was wonder but it had an ease, an acceptance and to some extent making connections between mark making of different kinds. At least, that is how I will interpret their expression, questions and the conversation that followed.  They showed the different designs they usually make. No, not recorded in a sketchbook. They stretched their arms, or lifted the border of the sari to show the ones on the legs. They did mention that there can be other designs too but would usually make the popular ones. Maybe, no one ever asked them to make something unique. Probably they were always asked to make something like the one that is already made. A woman from the neighbourhood joined us and showed a tattoo made by them on her hand.

I carried some papers to see if we could sit and draw together. Initially, they tried to draw with the needle on the paper. Soon, they felt that the process was not fluid enough and piercing on skin works very differently from that on a paper. They picked one of the pencils I carried. Among the two of them, Sharada ji seemed more confident to engage with new ideas. After drawing few designs on a paper, she wrote her name. In fact, she coaxed Guljari ji to write her name on the page she was working on. She mentioned they learnt to write name in a literacy programme conducted for the elders in their village few years back. In the ream of papers I carried, they identified the Nepali rice paper. Guljari ji mentioned it is the paper on which official documents were made traditionally. She was more interested in the other sheets. Conversation moved away from drawing or tattoos to life in general, about farming, running a house, taking care of the family, motherhood etc. They inquired about me, my family. Not surprised that I am single but they believed that a family is good for support. Life is long and marriage, children etc. keep us busy; takes care of loneliness. 

After spending some time with them, I chose to leave. I invited them for the ‘kala kachahri’ – a get-together we organized for the people we engaged with during our stay in Kawasoti and the community around. I had many questions but those will require a durational engagement. I am particularly curious   about their friendship and working together. The two are distant relatives. But what bonds them together? How they chose to do tattoos together and who draws what? What are the different roles they play in this collective act? How does the individual and collective engagement work for them not only in the context of tattoo making but life in general?

The residency was supported by PhotoKTM in collaboration with Jatayu Vulture Restaurant and Bird Conservation Nepal. Young nature guide Roshan helped me in translations and conversing with the local people during my stay in Kawasoti.