Traditionally, women’s bodies don’t belong to them, I want to question that gendered approach
31-year-old, photographer and filmmaker Shatabdi Chakrabarti, discovered early on that people found it easier to have preconceived notions about her than talk to her. These notions followed here everywhere—in college, on the street, in the places she visited daily, her workspace. This is because Chakrabarti loves tattoos and is passionate about them. She has tattoos on her feet, legs, hands, ribs, shoulder, back, arms, neck. She got her first tattoo of a “treble clef” when she was a teenager and did it by herself using a needle and fabric paint. She has lost the count of her tattoos.
Initially the tattoos she had were not visible; I would always wear a covered t-shirt, or a kurta. It took time for her to come to terms with the fact that there was no point in hiding herself. The reason she tried to hide her tattoos was because, “if I’m out somewhere with friends, strangers used to come up and say, ‘Hi, cool tattoo!’ The gaze of that stranger used to instantly project ‘oh, she has a tattoo, which is visible, which means that she is easy’. That was the most difficult thing for me to deal with, as it was an assumption that was everywhere. “
Chakrabarti says that, most men view a tattooed female body as a question to their conditioning of being able to control a woman’s decision about her body. Traditionally, in tribal spaces, tattoos are a part of a woman’s identity, in western India, people look at it as jewelry—in that kind of set up, women don’t even realise that they have a choice in the matter and get tattooed very young. The option of having a ‘choice’ is what really fascinates me.
“In my office, my peer groups, I was ‘the cool one’ because I had tattoos. Men would come, touch my arm and say “oh! Cool tattoo’, it was ridiculous. The world looks at you like a commodity, it takes a while to navigate through that thought process. In some way, that made my belief in myself as an Indian woman much stronger. Just because I have tattoos doesn’t mean that I’m not “Indian enough” or I don’t have values. When I talk to a shopkeeper or an auto rickshaw driver, I can see the eyes moving everywhere, I’m like, dude I’m looking into your eyes and talking to you. Look HERE! Because for me my tattoos are simple things.”
“My parents have their issues with my tattoos as that’s something they are not used to. They say that it’s a god given body and I shouldn’t be marking it like this. Also because, the conditioning we grow up in, caters to the thought process that the woman’s body has to be pure and pristine and unmarked. There’s a clash and they sometimes regret that I have tattoos. But with time they have made their peace with my choice of getting inked.”
Some of my tattoos were a retaliation or a lashing out against something I’ve gone through which really hurt me or put me in a dark place. Getting a tattoo in a situation like that or when I’ve come out of something becomes a reminder of what I’ve learnt from it. It doesn’t really mean a bad memory of what I’ve gone through and the tattoo doesn’t represent that. It represents what I’m feeling now, when I’ve just realized what has happened.
“I have a fascination towards sacred geometry, nature & symbolism as a concept. Things which represent the five elements, the self, sometimes spirituality, they make a lot of sense to me. For instance, I was going to Amsterdam a couple of years ago because of a film I am working on. This was my first International trip, linked to a film which is incidentally about tattoos and the body. It all just came together beautifully.. A day before my travel, I got a tattoo of a cicada in the middle of a sacred geometric metatron’s cube. The pointers on the cube are the five elements and the self. The cicada is in the middle. And I got the cicada because it can kind of decide the correct time to be alive in a way. It can be a juvenile and stay underground for 17 years at a stretch and come out to become an adult and complete the life cycle only when conditions become favourable of sorts. The thing of recognizing or understanding the right time to do something – that is what that travel and the tattoo represented for me.”
“There’s a tattoo which I consider special. A Latin saying Memento Mori, Memento Vivere, which means remember you must die but remember to live. So I have a visual representation of that and instead of getting just the lettering done, visually I looked at it as a skeletal hand holding a flower (a daisy). I got the reference from the internet of an x-ray of a daisy because I find them to be very simplistic. Over the years the tattoos have also become a part of my physical being. The tattoos have become a part of my skin. I have tattoos where rings are supposed to be on fingers. If I had to look at myself without these tattoos now, it would be like an identity crisis I feel.”
Photographed by Srishti Bhardwaj