An Indian photographer is challenging the idea that ‘a woman with a tattoo is a slut’

When she turned 39 in 2016, photographer Sanjukta Basu decided to strike off one thing that had been on her to-do list for a long time – get a tattoo. “It was because I had finally figured out what I wanted inked on myself,” said the 41-year-old, who got her tattoo artist to draw a sailboat on her forearm surrounded by the image of flying birds and the words, “wherever the wind takes me”.

“I was contemplating my last year as a 30-something and I was thinking a lot about what my achievements in life have been, what have I accomplished and I realised that even though my life and career have never been streamlined towards some ultimate one goal, I have done many little things that have given my life meaning and purpose,” said Basu. A trained lawyer, she practiced only for a little while before branching out into the creative fields. “I have been a photographer, writer, teacher, entrepreneur, among other things, and I wanted my body art to reflect that about me.”

Having put so much thought into just one tattoo, the Delhi-based Basu began to think about the scores of women who deliberate just as much about body art and she wanted to know the stories of their tattoos. Through an open call on her Facebook page, Basu started meeting women in Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru who were willing to have their tattoos and stories chronicled. The result: a project titled Women with Tattoos.Basu is now inviting women from Delhi to tell their tattoo stories and be photographed.

Parama Ghosh, a Kolkata-based lawyer turned sari designer, was one of the women Basu featured. Her body art is Ghosh’s way of paying homage to her Bengali culture and heritage. A tattoo on the right side of her back is of a symbol created by combining the initials of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and her forearm bears a tattoo of the Victoria Memorial museum, one of Kolkata’s most recognisable landmarks.

Choice versus tradition

“In our conversation, Parama shared how everyone thinks a tattoo is not appropriate for a lawyer,” said Basu. “It makes you come across as a ‘hippie’, ‘vagabond’, ‘non-serious’, or ‘loose’. I wanted to challenge this kind of gender discrimination faced by women who have decided to get inked and express themselves through body art. We read about inspiring stories now and then in the paper and online, about women who have overcome hurdles and hardships or lived through trauma and come out stronger on the other side, but this project has been a reminder that there are those who haven’t been written about but who, in their own ways, have fought tooth and nail to claim their own identities.”

Bengaluru resident Pratima Chaudhuri’s tattoo is of a dagger cutting into her back but instead of blood, what bleeds out is a flower. Years ago, Chaudhuri lived through a difficult divorce, after she left her abusive husband. For Basu, Chaudhuri’s story is a reminder that pain can be turned into strength and something beautiful and strong can be born of suffering. She hopes to eventually turn the project into a book.

Vaishnavi Prasad, Chennai. Photo credit: Sanjukta Basu.
Vaishnavi Prasad, Chennai. Photo credit: Sanjukta Basu.

While she documents these urban stories, Basu is also interested in the fact that in India, certain tribes, such as the Apatani of Arunachal Pradesh and Singpho tribe across parts of the North East, have had a long tradition of women being tattooed. While the Apatani women were tattooed to make them unattractive to rival tribes, Singpho women get both their legs tattooed only once they get married.

“Maybe one day I will meet these ladies and find out more about their body art traditions, but for this project my focus is on women who get their tattoos of their own free will and not out of some sense of obligation to any tradition,” said Basu. “Urban women face a lot of criticism for their tattoos and somehow seen as lesser women for it.”

Sanjukta Basu


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