Who Does This Body Belong To?

Last updated 28 Dec 2016 . 8 min read

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 Indian Women and their Tattoos  - Independent Film maker,  Shatabdi Chakrabarti takes you on this journey.

(Film still, Sapna Bhavnani, Photo credit Shatabdi Chakrabarti)

At 17 years of age, Shatabdi decided to pay homage to music, which has been an integral part of her life. As a young girl, she didn’t know how to afford a professional artist, so taking a sewing needle and black fabric paint; she hand poked a musical note on to her body. She continued to get few more like that. This was her initiation into tattoos. As she started earning, she got her first professionally tattoo.

This was about a decade back, women with visible tattoos was not a common sight in Delhi. She observed, her tattoos made people change their perception about her. Suddenly, she was the “cool” girl in college. Her parents were upset, as they thought it was “uncultured” and tainting her own body. The gaze of the society changed; instantly judged, labeled and put in the box as “too western and modern girl”.

That’s when the thought of making a film came to her. She knew that body art and tattoos were not a western or modern concept.

She explains, “Ink-in’ my Body is a film about body and identity using the ancient art form of tattooing as a device to question the dichotomy in our society. The film dwells on the question “WHO DOES THIS BODY BELONG TO?”

It is a visual archive of body art and tattoos, a dying art form in its traditional space. The film features testimonies of women from different walks of lives who have used body art as a form of free expression and who have tattoos for the traditional aspects of the art form. An academic viewpoint is given by a scholar. There is an anthropological aspect as the documentary traces the history, folklore and tribal cultures. Covering major metropolitan cities and tribal cultures in the Northeast, Central and West India, the documentary archives certain traditional styles of tattoos in the country and discovers their history.

In the tribal, traditional space, women are tattooed because they are supposed to get tattooed as per the norm of the tribal society. These women have no say in the matter. But in the urban space, women are using the same art form to reclaim their bodies and to assert the fact that their bodies belong to them and what they do with it is their choice, their decision. The film aims to enlighten the audience about an art form that is deep rooted in our tradition and tribal spaces, yet the acceptance of the very same art form is still questioned.”

Since the film is women centric, there will be a strong questioning of the “ideas” of society about a traditional and morally correct Indian woman”.

It is not simply an act of rebellion or forwardness. Tattoos are stories and memories, thoughts and ideas, art and beauty. “Ink-in my Body” is an attempt to understand this dichotomy and question society regarding its prejudice.”

The project has been invited to be a part of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam Academy in Amsterdam this month, which is also part of the IDFA award.


(Shatabdi Chakrabarti, Photo Credit: Basit Umer)

She questions “In India, we actually have the most diverse and largest tradition of tattoos. You travel to any part of the country and you will find traditional tattoos on the locals. So this dichotomy really intrigued me. Yes, maybe my designs and motifs were not the traditional ones, but
how does having a tattoo make me less Indian or less of an Indian “woman”? Or how and why does it make me “cool” or a “rebel”? These questions started bugging me due to my own day to day experiences once I had those first few tattoos. And that’s why this film.

When in an urban space, an independent woman takes the decision of getting a tattoo; she is instantly branded as too western or easy.”

She reflects “Maybe because I have always been ‘seen’ in a different light because of the way, I look and the way I am, what really interests me is to try and understand why society reacts the way it does to something which is even a little out of the norm? Are we that fickle as a society or a community that anything which we feel is not ‘normal’, we look at it with fear? Why does that scare us so much? All this comes from personal experiences; of glances, questions, judgments and statements. Just because, I refuse to bow my head and accept every ‘rule’ that this so called society has made for its women.”

(Photo Credit: Shatabdi Chakrabarti)

She was inspired by the disunion which exists in our society. There is a fear of the female form. She questions, “On one hand we worship the Goddess and we equate the earth to our mother and daughters to the “Shakti”, but simultaneously we want to tightly chain the same female form under notions of “correctness”, “honor”, “value systems”, “culture”, and “tradition”. It’s ok to worship “Kali” who took matters into her own hands, but as an independent woman in today’s India, you try and take matters into your own hand, the whole country goes nuts!

We worship “Radha Krishna” together, when it’s a fact that they were never married. Radha was related to Krishna, older than him and married to someone else. But the world comes crashing down if woman talks about having an affair before getting married.”

Shatabdi, 30 years, remembers her childhood as a quintessential “Bengali” whose life was filled with learning art, classical music, dance, “Rabindra Sangeet” and “Nazrul Geeti”. She quit regular college and started working within months of turning 18. She started at a call center to become financially independent and the first thing she bought was a film camera. After a year, she joined NDTV channel. She learnt everything about the moving visual medium, on the job in the next 6 years here. With that continued to assist a production house, work on full length documentaries and AD films. This gave her the experience and exposure. Meanwhile she completed her graduation around the same time. After that she moved to Bombay for a year working on commercial AD films.

(Photo Credit: Shatabdi Chakrabarti)

(Photo Credit: Shatabdi Chakrabarti)

Delhi called her back and after more interesting work with production houses, she got a chance to work on a feature film “
Song of a Scorpion”, directed by Anup Singh. The film has a stellar star cast; Irrfan Khan, Waheeda Rahman and Golshifteh Farahani.

As the lead photographer for the coffee table book on the band “Indian Ocean,” she travelled and shot extensively with her favorite band of musicians.

(Photo Credit: Shatabdi Chakrabarti)

As a Zoology student, she has been delving into wildlife photography too.

Painstakingly, passionately and patiently she has been bringing her film to life for the past 5 to 6 years. In the process she had to deal with tirade of concerns.

As an independent woman filmmaker, she has been travelling extensively to remote Indian villages alone, responsible for her own personal safety and at times patriarchal village heads and men refused to talk her.

She had to heed to cultural/ local practices while on location. Once a factory manager refused to look her in the eye and only spoke to her “male” cameraperson, even though she was the one asking questions.

There was a time she waited find a producer or grant body for funding, deciding to go ahead and shoot on her own. It was a little tough to keep an eye on the focus of the shot, while recording audio and interviewing and doing everything else at the same time, all on her own.

She says, “Whatever you do, do it for your own reasons. And be prepared to face whatever the consequences are.”


(Photo Credit: Shatabdi Chakrabarti)


Piyali Dasgupta
A writer and an educator with expertise in experiential learning,capacity building, counselling & content development. A feminist, wit addict and time/life traveler. She loves trees, water bodies, vintage,cooking and arts

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