as a little girl…
my love for henna…
awakened me…
and all of my senses…
in a way that has never left me…

even now the smell takes me back to india…
on the floor at my nanaji’s (grandfather’s) flat…
surrounded by the women and other children of the house…
as they prepared the food, readied the house and bride for the wedding to come
with spirited conversation, singing, and eating that only comes when women gather
to participate in the celebration and ritual of henna
as they embrace and let go of one of their own…

it is this feeling, i realize, that i look most forward to whenever i go back to india…
the feeling of being a part of something bigger than me…
a family bigger than i ever imagined,
ancient rituals and art passed on for generations…
and the earth itself…

for the art of henna starts with the henna plant…
considered auspicious…
the leaves of the plant are ground into a fine powder,
which is mixed with water, made into a paste, and then applied with an artistry and beauty that still mesmerizes me…

as i boarded the train from the gateway of india to santa cruz
for my first class with zarna, who was to be my teacher for the next two weeks…
i work hard to quiet my nerves as my family’s concerns about me commuting alone
invade my head and
the “what if’s” start…

“what if” i am not good enough…
“what if” the art form i so admire eluded me…
“what if”…

but as the train pulled out of the station,
and the streets, smells, and people of mumbai passed me by…
i felt exhilarated…
i did it…
i was here in mumbai…
on my own…
and about to completely immerse myself in my art…
and in so doing, my roots…

zarna lives in the same ‘suburb’ as my family…
in a building similar to theirs…
concrete, broken down and dirty on the outside…
but painted with color by the laundry hung out to dry…
with narrow, dark stairwells and windows that let in very little light,
protecting residents and visitors from the often oppressive heat of india…

as i climbed the stairs…
i realize that for the next two weeks
i will become a part of her daily routine…
in the home she has grown up in…

she invited me in…
her mother offered me chai…
we sat cross-legged on the couch in their living room
and we began…

with a hand-made henna cone…
and a board to practice on…
i shyly put cone to board
and draw a straight line as she instructed…

almost immediately she stopped me…
it was all wrong…
the way i was holding the cone…
the thickness of the henna
the line itself…

so i spent the whole first day drawing mostly lines…
letting go of my pride and
everything i thought i knew
about the practice of henna…
to start over…

we spent the next two weeks
progressing from lines, to circles, to shapes and shading…
she imparted her skills and knowledge about
the different styles of henna—indian, arabic, and rose…
all the while sharing personal stories…
her joys—she was to be married…
her grief—for the loss of her brother…
and many other details of her life…

we had conversations leaning over the balcony…
as she collected mail from a bucket attached to a make-shift pulley…

we spent time in the kitchen…
mixing the paste…
adding eucalyptus and clove oil
and making the cone…

she shared her sketchbooks…
her mother’s hand-made jewelry…
her dreams…

it is this intimacy
that i now realize made
this experience even more profound…

it was a gift…
to practice and explore this art that i have loved
since i was a little girl
to better understand and appreciate its nuances, complexities and hidden secrets

and to feel so connected to the women who came before me…
and the ones now…
who continue to
honor it…
perfect it…
make it their own…
pass it on…

and now as i reflect on my time in mumbai…
in zarna’s home, learning and practicing
i am profoundly grateful for the art of henna…

it is my east meets west…
a visual representation of my life story…
one that reminds me that i am not alone…
that we are all connected…
to the earth,
our past,
our ancestors and
each other…

 

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