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Tattooing a Lost Legacy


For Moranngam Khaling, popularly known as Mo Naga, tattoos are more than just a piece of body art. It is more of depicting a person's identity and way of life. And maybe it is this fixation with art and identity that has taken this young and dynamic artist to the world stage. A tattoo artist and researcher, Mo Naga is today counted amongst the top 100 tatoo artists of the world as per a list published in The World Atlas of Tattoos.

Mo Naga is a tattoo artist who has been trying to revive the vanishing tattooing traditions of various tribes of Nagaland. With it, he has been trying to re-interpret traditional Naga tattooing by taking inspiration from Naga art and culture reflected in various tribal costumes, folk tales, paintings, wood carvings, etc. As part of his research, he has spent months travelling into the interior most Naga villages, learning about the tattooing culture with the sole purpose of preserving this almost lost heritage and share it with the world. 
Mo Naga's forays in the world of tattooing have started to pay dividends as the world is increasingly taking note of him. The first and only tattoo artist in India to be invited to demonstrate traditional tattooing in the National Museum Kolkata in 2015, Mo Naga is also the only Indian artist whose work was invited and featured in the path-breaking book called 'Tattoo Masters Flash Collection',  by Edition Ruess publication of Germany. His work towards documentation of Naga tattoos has been featured extensively in leading media channels like BBC and AFP.
The melange team recently entered into a conversation with the dynamic artist to know more about his journey in the world of tattoos. Following are excerpts.
Q. Please tell us about your childhood.
Ans: I was born to Moysel Syelsaanthyel Khaling and AS Vayola Khaling of Manipur as the eldest of four siblings. My parents belong to Ukhrul district but I was born and brought up in Imphal. So technically speaking, I have never lived in the village. I did my initial schooling in Imphal itself but when I was in Class 5, I was sent to Delhi for better education. Staying away from home, I was not much interested in studies and was more into football, playing for the senior club level. My parents however wanted me to concentrate more on my studies and when I was in the 9th standard, I was called back to Guwahati where my father was posted in the Customs department. 
I passed my senior secondary examination from Guwahati itself. After that, I took a year break from education because I wanted to find out my life's calling. I was deeply interested in the world of fashion designing but it was a very new subject for me and my family. Since no one in my family was involved in this sector, I took out some time for myself to learn about it. In 2014, I joined the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Hyderabad after clearing their country-wide entrance examination.
Q. How did your interest in tattoo develop? Was it a childhood interest?
Ans: The first year in NIFT was very interesting for us students. The first year is called as the Orientation Stage and students are allowed to explore and experiment with different art forms like textiles, glass, wood, etc. It was the most enriching period of my life as I got the chance to experiment with different art forms. During that time, one of my friends told me about tattoo making. Before that, I had never considered tattoo making as an art form. But since we were exploring new ideas, me and my friends pooled our resources to buy an amateur tattoo machine. We tried it to make tattoos on each other and that was the beginning of my tryst with tattoos. 
For four years till my graduation, I continued exploring the art of tatoomaking. I tried to understand the art but it was only as a hobby. It was only in the final year when I was researching on Naga textiles that I came to know about the existence of the Naga tattoo tradition. Before that, I had never realised that India was home to such diverse and rich tattoo traditions. It came as a big revelation for me. Since I was already making tattoos, my interest in the subject increased and I started doing more research on the tattoo traditions of India. The more I delved into the subject, the more I got attracted to it. Till 2012, I came back to Guwahati to start field trips. Before that I was just researching into the subject.
Q. Tell us about the Naga tattoo traditions.
Ans: Naga tattoos are a mark of identity for the people. There is a lot of misconception amongst the general populace regarding Naga tattoos because most people associate it with headhunting. Yes, it is true that Naga tattoos depict head-hunting. But it also talks about a lot of other things. Naga tattoos are a mark of an individual's identity in his village and community, they talk about their achievements, culture and way of life. Naga tattoos marks the status of that particular person in society; it talks about their beliefs and kinship with nature. Finally, it captures the aesthetics that the people have developed with nature over the course of time. This is what Naga tattoos talk about.
But because of very limited research in the subject, the general populace are ignorant about this glorious cultural tradition. After the Britishers came into Naga territory, they started recording and documenting whatever came their way and in the process, bit and portions of Naga tattoo tradition got documented. However, no research was ever carried out to document this tattoo traditions.
Q. Do all Naga tribes have a history of tattoo traditions?
Ans: Till the history that we recall, Naga tribes have no history of tattoo traditions. The tribes stopped making tattoos long before they converted to Christianity. And with the advent of Christianity, it became easier for the people to forget about it. Since tattoos are taboo according to Christianity, this was a cultural element that people just wanted to forget and erase from their minds.
However, during my research and forays into Naga areas, I have met many elders who talk about the rich history surrounding Naga tattoos. They have revealed the existence of many songs and dances which revolved around the Naga tattoo traditions. The old people I met had very clear memories of this tradition and also of the various tattoo patterns that used to be drawn. Had I not been a tattoo artist who had taken the initiative to meet the old people in this field, these traditions would have been lost forever.
For instance, let us talk about a big tribe like the Sumi Nagas. While it is known that Sumi women used to draw various tattoos on their body, very few people know that even the majority of Sumi men drew big tattoos on their chest.  The Sumis were one of the first Naga tribes which came in contact with the Britishers and among the first to discard this tradition. However, this tradition has been clearly recorded in the works of JH Hutton.
Like the Sumi tribe, there are a lot of other tribes. There are many more smaller tribes along the eastern part of Nagaland about whom we don't know much. We cannot say with certainty whether all Nagas practiced the tradition of making tattoos or not. Since we do not have any written records, it becomes a bit complicated as we can only cite things from our own experiences.
Q. When did you start making tattoos professionally?
Ans: In 2008, I was invited by Lee Jeans to make tattoos in their iconic store in Greater Kailash Market of New Delhi. They gave me a small space where people could come and make tattoos. They were promoting me as the country's best tattoo artist. That was the time when I had started my research on Naga tattoos.
During that time, there was a sort of economic depression in the country and jobs were not paying much. I was making 10 times more than my friends and it was then that the thought of taking up tattoo making professionally struck me.
Q. How has been the journey so far?
Ans: The journey has been difficult but highly fulfilling. I am doing something that I really believe in, plus it involves design and art which I have studied. For me, tattoo is something more than just a piece of body art. For me, tatoos talk about my identity. And since I come for such a small tribe and such a small place, I have faced the crisis of identity for my entire life. The need for having a clear-cut identity has been ingrained in my mind for long. 
Of course, there are a lot of hurdles but I have learnt to face them and live with them.
Q. What kinds of tattoos do you make?
Ans: I make two types of tattoos. One is the traditional Naga tattoos which I replicate. And then I also draw a Neo-Naga tattoo, which is form of Naga art inspired by cultural aspects of the Naga way of life. Through these tattoos, I talk about Nagas, their culture and their way of life.
Q. What has been your motivating factor?
Ans: I make tattoos with the hope that they will create more awareness about the tattoo tradition of the Nagas, as well as other tribes of the country. And I see this happening. More and more researchers are now coming forward to do research on various tattoo traditions of the different tribes of our country.