By Azera Parveen Rahman, Guwahati, Jan 12 IANS | 7 months ago

Naga tribes have an old and rich tattooing culture. But such traditional art forms are now all but extinct and Mo Naga, a 29-year-old northeastern youth, is on a mission to revive this "unique" heritage.


Moranngam Khaling, or Mo Naga, as he prefers to be referred to, is a design graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and found his love for tattooing in 2005, when in his first year in college, he along with a friend decided to buy a machine together and explore the art. Admittedly it was only modern designs in the beginning since tattoo artists around the world were rapidly discovering new styles.

"But around 2008, I started reading about Naga tattoo culture which submerged me in the world of tribal tattoo arts, its symbols, significance and their beliefs. There are many other tribes in India who have tattooing traditions, but I found the Naga tattoos unique because of their direct association with the headhunting culture and their unique beliefs associated with present life and beyond," Mo Naga, whose tattooing brand goes by the Headhunters' Ink name, told IANS.

"Also, there was an urgent need to begin my journey from the Naga hills because the culture there is almost extinct and traditional tattooing practice was abandoned many decades ago. All we are left with now are a few old men and women with such tattoos," he added.

The Nagas, says Mo who hails from Manipur but is now settled in Guwahati in Assam says, don't have a written script of their history. It has instead been passed down generations orally through stories and songs. A thorough study of the traditional tattoo patterns too can reveal priceless pieces of history, he believes.

"In the olden days, every major stage in life was marked with rituals and in many tribes with tattoos. Tattoos were also done for beautification purposes, but most traditional tattoos were sacred. There were tattoos which marked successful headhunting, and some were symbols and marks of their pagan beliefs. I am not trying to bring back the old beliefs and lifestyle. My effort is to tell the stories of our forefathers through art and design," Mo Naga said.

In his four years' research of traditional Naga tattoos, which took him to the interior villages of the state, Mo Naga says that he has discovered a treasure trove of patterns which he is now compiling. One such design is akin to the Turkish Evil Eye or the Eye of Horus that certain tribes of the northeast tattooed on their bodies for protection in the present life and the afterlife.

In the recently concluded Hornbill Festival in Nagaland which attracted visitors from around the world, Mo Naga said that he unveiled this design in his stall and many people, including foreign tourists, chose to get tattooed.

The ethnic significance of Mo Naga's work has intrigued and inspired many, including a British couple, James Paul Smith and Hannah Hatt, who were his first clients. "I inked them with my first Naga tattoo design that was inspired by a design generally used in Naga shawls. They have now become our cultural ambassadors in the UK," he said. His work has also got the suppport of the state government.

Headhunters' Ink also has a special school in Guwahati which trains students in the nuances of tattooing-from technique to sketching and design development, and from studying the human body to exploring the culture of the region. The curriculum is designed as per an individual's requirement, so the approach used for a fine arts graduate is different from a software graduate.

"The aim is to train young artists and groom them into professional tattoo artists. Tattooing is not a money making business for me, and I am happy training one or two serious students a year," Mo Naga added.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.rahman@gmail.com)

(Posted on 12-01-2014)