WHEN RAMKELI Paole’s granddaughters started creating a fuss about continuing with “Godana”, the practice of tattooing that was prevalent in her community for generations, she knew she had to find another avenue for her skills. “We were told one couldn’t journey into the afterlife without these ornaments. But kids these days see it as a black disfiguration,” the 60-year-old Godana artiste said.
Matriarch for a group of 12-15 women, including her relatives, from Jamgala village in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja, Ramkeli has been painting Godana motifs on cloth for over 20 years, working with thin brushes and acrylic colours mixed with “jadi-booti” (herbs) to ensure the ingredients stick.
And yet, it was not until a few years ago that she found a way to “earn a decent living” off her work. Today, Ramkeli says, with the state government’s intervention, she is earning more than the family’s annual income in just a few months.
Ramkeli and her group were discovered by local authorities, who connected her to schemes and officials of the state’s Gramodyog department. “We have been working on orders since then. But since the past two years, we have been working regularly with the Handloom department,” she said.
During the Covid lockdown, the group could not travel to the Raipur centre to get orders and submit finished products. So the Handloom department shifted Ramkeli and her sisters-in-law, along with their daughters and daughters-in-law, to the government hostel for artists in Raipur.
“I like working here, it is a designated spot, no one comes to bother me,” said Ramkeli with a relieved smile. “At home, one is a mother, wife, grandmother first” and “since there is no end to those roles, the women can’t find time to focus on Godana work”.
The government’s support has allowed the Godana artists to not just become entrepreneurs in their own right but also train a new cohort. “We train girls and women from other districts, women who had never learnt Godana are now getting private orders,” said Sunita Paole, Ramkeli’s sister-in-law. In their village alone, Ramkeli and her group have taught Godana to more than 100 women.
“Each dot, each line has a significance. The patterns all hold meaning… like the karela channi, made entirely of dots, is meant to ward off the evil eye. Our ancestors used to call Godana the actual ornaments,” she said.
According to Ramkeli, Godana is not just about cosmetics. “I had immense pain in my knee, but then my daughter’s mother-in-law tattooed just under the knee with a mixture of some local leaves and the pain was gone,” she said, doing sit-ups to underscore her point.
Officials say these artists work under Chhattisgarh’s Hastshilp Vikas Board and the state handloom federation of artisans. Initially, the women struggled because they did not have the money to buy good quality cloth to showcase the art. But for the past two years, the government has been providing silk clothing.
After being painted with Godana work, the cloth is stitched into stoles, sarees, blouses and ghagras. The finished products are sold through Shabri and Bilasa, the state-owned handloom stores, as well as on online portals and TRIFED shops under the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The state handloom development federation not only markets these products but also pays wages from the sales.
According to officials, between April and December last year, these Godana artists earned Rs 10 lakh. The artists are free to accept independent orders, and earn from the training they provide. The department also pays for them to attend fairs and exhibitions.
According to A Ayaz, general manager of the handloom development federation, the Godana women earn Rs 400-Rs 700 per item of clothing. “The clothes made by them are sold on a lot of e-portals, where they have a huge demand. Sometimes, we take the orders and these women make the goods . To commemorate their involvement in the state’s culture, we also got these women to make the state Gamcha, which is also being sold widely,” he said.
For Ramkeli, the trips she has undertaken to showcase her art remain cherished memories. “I keep going to Delhi and Kolkata. But once I went to Guwahati, it felt like a different land. When I got married and came to my village, I never thought I’d see more than a few towns nearby. Now, I have gone to so many places. It feels really nice,” she said.
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