Reliving lost Konyak customs

Dutch photographer and researcher with Konyak roots on their journey to rediscover lost customs of Konyak tribe.
                                                                                                         - Phejin Konyak with Peter Bos
The spirit of Nagas came alive at the Indian Museum, Kolkata. A photo exhibition of the Konyak tribe of Nagaland, who were known for their tattoos on their face and hands, was exhibited at the Asutosh Centenary Hall. The photo exhibition by renowned Dutch photographer Peter Bos, who is also a collaborator in the research of Phejin Konyak, threw light on the head hunters of the tribe. 

Talking about what drove her to start this research, Phejin says, “When I went through old ethnographic and anthropological works like journals and books on the Konyak tribe it struck me that there is not much information on the tattoo tradition which is the fundamental part of Konyak society. This was a wakeup call. And it left me determined to research and document on the tattoo tradition and so I decided to work on tattoo culture which is becoming a vanishing art in our society”. Peter, talking about his association says, “I am mainly interested in shooting portraits of unique people/culture. I realized that cultures are disappearing very fast. India is the country where most varieties of people are living. India is my favourite country to travel. Travel is in my blood and seeking far places is what I like. I was in Mon district to shoot where I met Phejin. I heard about her ambition of writing a book on Konyak culture. I was fascinated about the head hunting of Nagaland and we planned a trip to all the villages where we found all tattoos of the Konyak tattoos surviving.”

The largest out of l6 officially recognized tribes in Nagaland, the Konyak are known as ‘those violent headhunters with tattooed faces.’ The Naga tribes head hunt not because of mass killing or purposely  killing people but it happens over dispute over property, fishing rights and for vengeance. Not all men have to go to war. Tattoos are very diverse in Konyak tribes. We have discovered about three tattoo groups, which has not been done by anyone before. The iconic men tattoo you see is the facial tattoo of a particular group. There are other groups with chest and arm tattoos. So basically for the men it is the right of passage or initiation. The warrior gets a distinctive tattoo mark depending upon his role in the battle. We have tattoos for the powerful chiefs. Common people or subordinates cannot get that tattoo. It is a taboo. When a girl turns eight she gets her first tattoo, when she becomes 11years or attains puberty she gets it on her chest, her arms, when she is about to get married she gets it on her knee signifying that she belongs to her husband now and when she is giving birth to a child she gets tattoo on her thighs, that’s for fertility.

Phejin explains, “The tattoo was a tradition for life and as for head hunting began declining tattoo culture receded. My society was the last to transcend into modern times and adjust with modern life. Now it’s not our way of life and we don’t encourage anyone to do it. We document it for preserving the culture of the Nagas. Our work is very precious and if we hadn’t heard their stories we would have never known the tattoo’s significance in their daily life.” Phejin is writing down a book on Konyak culture. Her main aim is to reach the maximum members of the Konyak tribe. There is going to be a series of three books, first for national and international quality, second will be cheap material for localities and third and illustrative children’s book. They will be making a documentary and an animated film. The children’s book will be turned into a documentary. There is only a handful of such full-body tattooed warriors left in Konyak tribes. Peter signs off, “I realized that this kind of tribal existence, visual appearance of it is

disappearing everywhere in the world. I like diversity as a photographer. Now I really feel the urge to go out and capture unique people. I think in a decade or two the world will be completely be changed and then specific unique characteristic of the people will fade out.”

Reviving traditional tattoos of the tribal people of the North East

At Hongpui Village with the former tattooed headhunters, Mon district Nagaland.

Mo Naga, an alumnus of NIFT-Hyderabad is a self-taught tattoo artist. He is reviving traditional tattoos of the tribal people of North-East, creating neo-tribal designs. His designs are exposing to the world the lost tattoos of Northeastern tribes. Recently Mo Naga was present here at an exhibition at the Indian Museum aimed at documenting the traditions of past generations of Konyaks an initiative by Phejin Konyak, a descendant of the tattooed headhunters of the Konyak tribe. She has worked relentlessly for conserving the vanishing art.Renowned Dutch photographer Peter Bos, a collaborator in the research of Phejin Konyak was also present..Abhijit Ganguly spoke to Mo Naga.

You are a qualified Fashion Designer from National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) - Hyderabad. What prompted you to embark on a journey to protect, revive and promote tribal tattoos?

India has a diversified culture of tattoos from Kerala to Himachal Pradesh and from Gujarat to Nagaland, India has existing tattoo traditions. There are many tribes of the Naga community with rich tattoo traditions. I was overwhelmed by the opportunities that lay in front of me. It was the right time for me to shift from textile designing. Tattoos would reconnect me to my roots and give me an opportunity to showcase my work. I wanted to promote indigenous tattoo culture, prevalent among various tribes of the North-East. I am overwhelmed by the response and support that I have received. There is a need for urgency in everyone including the government bodies and the artists to revive the forgotten art of the Nagas which is slowly fading away.
Tattoo is a way of expressing
your feelings through your skin- Mo Naga
What is the present scenario of tattoo making?

The tattoo industry is booming in India. Tattoo is a way of expressing your feelings through your skin. For most people a tattoo signifies something deeper, much more personal and meaningful unlike the clothes or the makeup. Five -six years ago, people were fascinated by the bio-mechanical tattoo like, and then came realistic portraits and now people want to get Naga tribal style tattoos. The biggest misconception of tattoo is regarding health. There has to be more awareness about safe, hygienic and international standard tattooing.

What do you think is important for a tattoo artist while making a tattoo?

A tattoo artist must understand design concepts, body aesthetic, must have knowledge of art, and must be able to appreciate different art forms. 

Words of advice for aspiring tattoo artists?

To become a tattoo artist entails a long journey, lot of study, hard work and sincerity. It’s a profession that pays handsomely but is underestimated in society.

How was your experience getting involved with Phejin and Peter?

It was a great learning experience for me personally. I am grateful to Phejin and Sayan Bhattarcharya for arranging the workshop at the Indian Museum. Peter is a great photographer. I had great fun exchanging thoughts with both Peter and Phejin.

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