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Godna, skin to screen: a typeface made from ancient tribal tattoo markings

Godna: A Typecraft from an Ancient System of Marking Tattoos 

Region: Jamgala Village, Surguja District, Chattisgarh, India

Godna or tattoo is an ancient art form practiced by Gond tribe of Chattisgarh in Central India. Godna has many motifs, each having a specific significance — some are curative in nature, while others are applied according to rites of passage in a woman's life — such as puberty, marriage and childbirth. The tattoos are highly valued for their powers of healing and their ritualistic significance. However in modern times, fewer people are getting tattoos done, as they migrate to cities for jobs where tattoos are frowned upon. Tattoo artists are struggling to survive in this fast-changing world. This project is then meant as a way for craftspeople and tribal artists to think in new ways — in a world where they are no longer able to sustain themselves solely through traditional networks and systems. We engaged with three tribal women artists, Ram Keli, Sumitra and Sunita to help make the typeface. Funds from the sale of the typeface will go back to help these and other craft and tribal communities. 

Rites of Passage
 In general, women have a strong connection with the idea of a “vital cycle” not only as life givers, care-takers of children and the home; and their own monthly menstrual cycles. Some women, especially those from the tattoo community within the Gond tribe have a strong connection to the rites of passage — which are marked by the application of a certain godna tattoo motif on a specific part of the body — to mark the entrance into a new phase of life (such as puberty or pregnancy), for a woman. The motif and the placement varies according to the tribe they are inscribing the tattoo on. Baiga tribe motifs vary for instance, from Bhil tribes. That the tattoos are mainly done by women on women is another strong connection they have to the cycle of life. Similarly, both Chittara and Mithila art was traditionally painted on the walls and floors outside the home — according to the season, festival or special occasion (for instance, marriage) by the lady of the house. The motifs (in the case of Chittara) and the subject matter (in the case of Mithila) reflect the changing of seasons and represent the different stages of life — from birth to death. 

The Typecraft Initiative is a self-initiated and self-funded project which is a part of our on-going mission to create typefaces out of ancient and traditional Indian craft as a means to generate livelihood among the artisans and to promote, archive and innovate these art forms. We plan to create 29 typefaces from 29 languishing crafts — one from each state of India, in order to help sustain these crafts in a small way and to generate awareness of that craft as well as the practitioners who have been associated with that craft for generations. For this edition of the project, we engaged with three tribal women artists — Ram Keli, Sumitra and Sunita — who belong to the Gond tribe of Chattisgarh in Central India. These and other women from this tribe etch tattoos onto the Baiga and other tribal women. We conducted a month long workshop at our Delhi based studio — that enabled them to understand the basic nuances of typefaces and also helped them get an understanding of some of the key aspects of type design, namely proportion and consistency. A workshop like this in a new setting can be intimidating for any artist — especially artist who have come from a very different background. For this reason, we kept the pace slow and we spent the first week just having the artists draw their own motifs, we recorded the meaning of these motifs as well as some of their songs — which were beautiful indeed. We then, slowly initiated lessons on typography proportion, style and harmony.


Craftspersons - Ram Keli Pavle, Sunita Pavle, Sumitra Pavle

Designer and Craft Co-ordinator - Andreu Balius, Ishan Khosla

Font Development - Andreu Balius

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