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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

SIGNS : January 14, 2001


Tell-tale signs

Vidya Kamat

The author holds a doctorate in mythology and is attached to the Department of Sanskrit, University of Bombay.

R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile
T.S. Satyan/Fotomedia
A devotee with pierced tongue and face. Yakshagana performer

The cultural theorist Efrat Tseelon argues that, within the framework of capitalist consumer culture, the status of the body has been radically transformed. Instead of being a fixed and nature-given entity, the body has now been turned into a malleable cultural product. This has led to various possibilities of body reshaping: while an obsession with the "sculpting of the body" can generate a beauty mythology and become an excuse for the world's consumer-product corporations to alter the psyche of entire societies through pageants and promotional campaigns, the idea of bodily transformation can become an instrument by which individuals can express pleasure, social belief or political orientation.

Manoj K. Jain
The uniform as a less drastic form of "branding".

As an instance of the latter possibility, we may reflect on the series of psychic actions that the French artist Gina Pane performed in the early 1970s for a selected audience, as part of her creative endeavour. Dressed in white, she presented herself as the "object" of the art experience and in a series of complex gestures she repeatedly struck herself with a razor-sharp instrument, until a network of wounds were inflicted on her body and streams of blood oozed out. Pane later justified her acts as testimony to her "physically identifying with the suffering experienced by society at large" and explained her art as a psychic participation in the process of healing.

Pane's art includes the body as a site, and dramatised "blood-letting" as a process of healing, a conception central to the shamanic practices of ancient times. The ancient shamans of Inner and Further Asia used body markings, body paintings and scarifications during their ceremonies; in their hands, the process of art became a process by which to negotiate with forces beyond human control.

Kharak Singh Kaira/Fotomedia
Tribal woman

Body markings are found commonly among pre-industrial cultures all over the world, which trace their art practices to the magico-mythical world view of pre-historic times. The belief that the tattooed design would protect a person from evil forces is endorsed also by Hindu myths. It is said that Lord Vishnu imprinted the designs of the shankha (conch) and chakra (discus) on the hands of his wife Lakshmi, in order to protect her from evil forces. Whether done to ward off evil spirits or for enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the body, traditional practices of body marking observe specific sets of rules while tattooing male and female bodies. The female body markings among the Naga tribes of north-eastern India used to begin at pubescence, as a preparation for the marital engagement; they were later elaborated and consolidated with pregnancy. The male body impressions, on the other hand, began as celebrations of the maturation of the boy into a warrior and hunter. Thus, after every successful head-hunting expedition, the warrior added a tattoo mark on his chest, declaring and affirming his status as a warrior.

Ajay Lall

Tourist in India

These tribal body markings, which are a continual process lasting till the person's death, turn the body into a record of the events during a person's duration on the earth: they are justified through the eschatological beliefs of such societies. For instance, the Nagas traditionally believed that tattoo marks were a determining factor in the spirit world and decided their fate in the next world. They believed that, if there were no tattoo marks on the body of a dead person, his soul would become a ghost in the netherworld.

Lt. Gen. R. K. Gaur/Fotomedia

Naga tribal

Why and how each community uses body markings is a matter of inherent cultural logic. For instance, the ancient Greeks used tattoo marks to identify their secret agents, while the Romans used such marks to keep a tab on their slaves. The invading Norse and Saxon sailors brought this art form to ancient Britain, as the tattoo marks on their chests proclaimed their proud legacy of sea-faring power. In pre-modern Burma, Japan and Russia, on the other hand, the forehead of a criminal would be tattooed with the name of the crime he had committed. In general, body markings were used for the purpose of identifying and isolating a specific group of people that shared a common internal ideology or were locked together in a socially imposed fate. Similarly, the body part chosen for this display depended entirely on the purpose for which it was be painted. From a social point of view, body markings had a significant role to play among itinerant and nomadic groups, as the person's identity in such groups depended on specific tattoo marks, in the absence of the stationary assets and documents that would serve as identification in an agrarian or industrial society.

Manoj K. Jain
G. B. Mukherjee/Wilderfile
Young sadhu with feather in cap Manicured hands on a 'sadhvi'

Anthropologists note that the tendency to practice body markings found among military and naval personnel, musicians and teenagers in urban environments is an expression of solidarity within a subculture. However, physicians and psychiatrists are of the view that many of the body marking practices prevalent in contemporary societies, notably in Europe and America, no longer relate to religious beliefs, but display mostly repressed sexual desires and perversions. Here, body marking should be seen as body "defilement", a negative attitude prompted out of regression and criminal tendencies. Supporting such a Freudian angle, Walter Bromberg suggests that, in the case of people suffering from sadistic fantasies, guilt and repressed sexual emotions, the body becomes a weapon of protest against the social norm, and the "defilement" of one's own body as the assertion of individual existence.

Manoj K. Jain

One of the factors to which the origins of such an inversion may be traced is the stance of the Christian church in Europe, which banned the practice of tattooing. Pope Adrian I, at the Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in 787 AD, banned tattooing, labeling it as a "savage and barbaric practice". From then on, the tattoo in Europe was seen as a weapon to protest against the papal decree, and as the voice of individuation that opposed religious or social diktats.

The line between body adornment and body defilement can be tenuous, since these concepts are relative to specific socio-cultural and individual perceptions. But it cannot be denied that the contemporary practice of body marking has deviated from a collective awareness propagated by the tribal ideology towards self-assertion, and now expresses the customisation of the individual.

According to Oxford anthropologist W.D. Hambly, the presentation of the body as a surface for creative expression or display, either through temporary or permanent markings, allows one's gaze to address one's own "self" rather than the gaze of the viewer outside. He concludes that body markings are essentially connected to the human psyche and exhibit various shades of human sensibilities, ranging from spiritual communion to a perverse imagination, depending upon one's personal body-soul equation. Painting the body temporarily, for a ceremonial rite or entertainment such as the bridal make-up of mehendi, demarcates the time-frame of the sacred from the profane within which the ceremony is conducted. By contrast, permanent body markings such as tattoo art or body modifications function at a different level of communication, in which the mutilations become the constant representation of one's personal or political mission.

The admissions of a "body artist", who began customising her body at the age of 14, probably throws some light on the nature of the body as a site of control and power. Having gone through a series of piercing, hair colouration, tattoo markings, corrective surgeries and implants, she rationalises her "art" by stating: "I was raised in a society that has imprinted my subconscious mind with the belief that unless I am a svelte size 6 with perfect hair, great skin, and the most stylish clothes, I will never be truly beautiful. So I've thought long and hard about what I TRULY consider beautiful, all societal norms aside." She further asserts that "I feel that every step I take internally to being a more enlightened, selfless, aware creature can be reflected on the outer surface by the things I choose to do to my body."

A continuous theme runs from Gina Pane's acts of body slashing through the shaman's acts of tattoo markings to the current practice of body modification: the theme of the body as the final frontier, the site or canvas where conflicts between the inner personal reality and the outer world are dealt with and attempted to be resolved.


D.V. Jainer Telepress features
Ajay Lall
D.V. Jainer Telepress features


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