Mangala Bai Maravi Takes India's Fading Godna Art To Sydney

As part of her residency at the University of Sydney, Mangala Bai Maravi and her artist assistant Amit Arjel-Sharma exhibited two massive Godna paintings at the Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns
Mangala Bai Maravi standing alongside her fifteen-foot-long work  displayed at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney
Mangala Bai Maravi standing alongside her fifteen-foot-long work displayed at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of SydneyUniversity of Sydney

“I began accompanying my mother, Shanti Bai Maravi, a prominent Baiga tattoo artist, from a very young age. It was when I was visiting Bhopal, aged 12, with her that I came across many works of tribal artists in Janjatiya Sangralaya (Tribal Museum) and was inspired to preserve the Godna tattoo tradition that was a part of my heritage,” says Mangala Bai Maravi, who exhibited the tribal tattoo tradition on canvas just last month at the Biennale of Sydney, accompanied and assisted by Amit Arjel-Sharma.

Hailing from Lalpur, a small village that looks like a dot on the expansive map of Madhya Pradesh, Maravi had her hands set on creating Godna art on women from a very young age. However, she had never dreamt of taking it overseas until Sharma, her long-time student, convinced her otherwise. “When Sharma told me that we had been given the opportunity to exhibit our Godna art in Sydney, I was initially scared. Neither did I speak the language, nor was I familiar with the culture. I had never even sat on a plane for that long. Moreover, when I heard about the size of the work we had to create, I was all the more doubtful,” admits Maravi, now with humour.

But according to Sharma, Maravi didn’t take long to find her ground so far away from home. Even though she had been making godna on skin using the traditional needle, Maravi never shies away from using modern tools or putting it on a huge canvas—it is this courage that has brought her so far, all the way to Australia.

Inking An Identity

Although Maravi and Sharma have taken the fading Godna tradition across the world, the practice struggles to stay afloat among the tribal community in India. Once considered to be the marker of a Baiga woman’s identity, now, the Godna tradition has been relegated to its rich and unique past, with the number of Baiga women adorning the tattoos only adding up to double digits. 

“Baiga girls started getting tattooed at the age of eight. The first tattoo was on their foreheads and signified the tribe they belonged to. As they grew older, the girls began getting their arms, legs, and backs also tattooed—sometimes with a gap of two years or almost within a few months. By the age of fifteen, their whole body would be covered in godna,” says Maravi.

The tattoo on the forehead  is symbolic of the tribe they belong to
The tattoo on the forehead is symbolic of the tribe they belong to Wikimedia Commons

While the forehead tattoo symbolised their “jaati ki pehchaan,” the godna was just as much about enhancing a woman’s beauty. According to Maravi, the girls, who usually got their first tattoo at the very onset of puberty, also perceived it as an embellishment. Since the women never had the means to buy jewellery, godna was considered to be their shringaar—one that could never be taken away from them.

“Godna, representative of a woman’s different phases of adulthood, was also considered to be very attractive. As girls grew up and became of marriageable age, they would get their backs tattooed as it was meant to catch the male attention,” says Maravi. “It was even surprising to me that there was this element of attraction involved in the godna tradition,” comments Sharma. Maravi also mentions that while the girls’ parents get godna done on their arms, legs, back and forehead, the chest is left bare until she gets married. The responsibility of getting a girl’s chest tattooed is that of the in-laws.

The tattoo on the legs are created later, as they near the marriageable age
The tattoo on the legs are created later, as they near the marriageable ageWikimedia Commons

The designs, featuring broad black lines forming geometric shapes, drew from nature and represented the tribe’s close connection with it. For instance, the godna on the arm symbolised the roots of a plant. “This pattern is meant to show our connection to our ancestors and the nature that surrounds us. It is a belief among us that if our roots are not strong, then none of our connections would be strong,” says Maravi. “Another pattern used in godna is inspired by the Kuni, a traditional tool used to catch fish,” adds Sharma. 

While the designs represent the tribe’s solid connection with nature, the practice of godna is traced to a mythical tale including Lord Shiva and Lord Indra. “The story goes back to ancient times when there was a severe drought in the region, prompting Naga Baiga and Baigin to visit Lord Shiva and Parvati, pleading for rain. Lord Shiva advised them to put their requests in front of Lord Indra. Worried that they wouldn’t be able to catch Lord Indra’s attention given their simple clothing, especially in a court filled with bejewelled and beautiful goddesses, the Naga Baigin requested Parvati’s help. It is then that Parvati summoned a Baigin to adorn the woman’s body in Godna,” says Maravi. She also added that since it was the woman who had to sacrifice herself to bring rain to the region, only women are allowed to get godna, even though men are allowed to make them.

Amit Arjel-Sharma and Mangala Bai Maravi stand in front of their paintings
Amit Arjel-Sharma and Mangala Bai Maravi stand in front of their paintings University of Sydney

Keepers Of The Past

Currently on display at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney until June 10, Maravi and Sharma’s 15-foot-long painting (pictured above), featuring traditional motifs, has definitely won international recognition for the intricate tattoo tradition. But what does the situation look like for Maravi and tribal artists like her in India? According to Sharma, there needs to be a joint effort between private and government organisations to record such tribal art traditions and generate awareness about them through large-scale events where tribal artists can find representation as well as the opportunity to earn from their work.

“Earlier, tribal artists used to only create godna on skin. But now people are demanding them to make it on canvases so that they can display it. However, despite this demand, the financial support provided to them is inadequate,” says Sharma.

Even though Maravi and other tribal artists have adapted to modern mechanisms of creating their heritage art forms, propelled by the urgency to save them, the kind of support and funds required to help them maintain their livelihood is still yet to come by. “Tribal artists need to be supported now more than ever. It is important to help them financially so that they can continue to persevere and preserve their art,” says Sharma.

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