North East is one of those unexplored lands that unravel a beautiful beast almost every time you try to tap into its treasures. Naga tribes are few of the only headhunters the country has had, and they might also be one of the foremost tattoo bearers too. In their villages, they would be respected like Gods until as recent as the 1970s. It was only after Christianity set its feet in the land, that the Nagas themselves started disliking their traditional roots. But now, one man is on a mission to not only keep the traditions alive, but also thrive them by putting them to modern contexts of ink.
Moranngam Khaling, aka Mo Naga has been on a mission to revive the wilting tradition. A fashion designer by education, Mo comes from a family of public servants. “My grandfather was a Senapati of Manipur Maharaj, my uncle was a social worker who worked for the Nagas and my father is an avid writer and researcher of the Naga culture. It is in my genes to preserve cultural heritage and wanting to do something for its revival.” In a recent project, the BBC accompanied Mo deep into Nagaland to understand more of these dying traditions.
The journey to documentation and preservation of Naga ink traditions took Mo four years of studying and researching before he could establish his very first studio called ‘Mo Tattoos’ in New Delhi in 2008. Mo started tattooing in 2004. “It started in college in 2004. I was researching traditional Naga textiles and stumbled upon tattoos; that left me surprised, shocked and very interested.” The field trips to the North East ensued only later.
Headhunters Ink was established as a tattoo school because Mo never wanted to keep the art to himself. The idea has always been to spread the knowledge about Naga tribal traditions and document the hardly ever discovered tattoos. “It’s not just the Konyaks; people know about them because the British explored that part. There are more than 60 small tribes; Chang, Phom, Yuimchungru, Khiamniungan, Sangtam etc. to name a few. I wanted more and more artists to join me in the journey of cultural revival. Over a period of time, Naga tattooing has been misunderstood. In fact, tattoo is one of the most important identities of many Nagas tibes, but modern ways have done away with it.”
It’s not easy, researching about a culture that has almost vanished, trying to spread the word about it, getting artists to join the initiative; it takes time, effort and definitely money. “I tried my best, but artists don’t seem to be interested and I understand that it’s a lot of struggle. So now, I have expanded my research to other parts of India too. It has been a long journey from Headhunters Ink to Godna Gram in Delhi, but I don’t wanna stop. This is what I do and it will take time but it will happen.”