The HennaPage Oral History Project
Recorded March 29, 2006 at Flagstone Farm, Moreton-on-Marsh, Gloucestershire, UK
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: First, I‘d like to go around and have you each say your name, when you were born, where you were born and where you are living presently.
Monica: Monica Kvam. I was born in
Catharine: Catherine Hinton, born in
Kiran: Kiran Sahib, born in
Riffat: My name is Riffat Bahar. I was born in
Kim Brennan. Born 1968 August 1,
Karam: Karam Applegate…born in
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Thank you. I would also like to know what is your educational background, and what do you use for your straight job, how, if you work a straight job, what do you do for an income, so what is your background?
Monica: I am a nurse secretary.
Catharine: I’m a housing strategy and research officer and manager.
Kiran: Credit controller.
Riffat: I'm a full time makeup and henna artist.
Kim: Computer operator.
Karam: Accounts clerk.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Thank you. The next question I want to go around will be where did you see your first henna, what was the situation how did you react to it? When did you start doing henna yourself? Monica?please.
Monica: It was on the Internet.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: The Internet?
Catharine: I’d seen it before but the most significant
experience was at the
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What did you see at the
Catharine: I saw a not particularly amazing henna artist who was selling black henna, and there was a small amount of real henna there.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What ethnicity do you think the black henna artist might have been?
Catharine: Well…they were white.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kiran, when did you first see henna? How did you experience it first and how were you exposed to it?
Kiran: I’ve grown up with it has always been there, for
weddings. Mum used to always have mehndi in the house
as well, from
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Riffat?
Riffat: I suppose my earliest recollection of henna would be five or six years old on Eid. My mother used to make a great big bowl of henna up and we would just sit there with matchsticks, and cocktail sticks, and just dot henna on each other, dot, dot, dash, dash. You just couldn’t do any patterns or flowers. Never heard of cones then. I don’t even think my mother used to use cones then. She used to henna her hair. On Eid we used to get all dressed up in our sparkly clothes and, we always, always had henna, we just used to do it on each other. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a professional henna artist. Because there weren’t the cones I didn’t really like henna, as a child. I just didn’t like the dot and dashes. And I didn’t like the smell either, because all we used to do is just mix henna with water, it wasn’t a very nice smell, it was like horse manure, I suppose. (laughs) And then growing up I saw it in magazines, and I started to see it on other people done by cones you could get beautiful intricate patterns, and about ten years ago I took my first henna course, I’ve done four courses now.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: When did you first see cones? Can you guess a year?
Riffat: What year are we in now? 2006 I suppose in the 80’s.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Ok. The metal cones?
Riffat: No they were plastic, ready-made cones. We used to get them from Southall. They cost fifty pence for a cone. They had a really big seam down them and when you filled the paste in and cut the hole, it was just awful. It wasn’t very good at all. You couldn’t do very nice patterns. So I suppose for me the best thing I ever learned was to make my own cones so I could do the intricate bridal designs that I do now.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: The first paste that you were able to purchase, do
you think it was manufactured in
Riffat: Yes. Uh no definitely from
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Do you remember a brand name?
Riffat: Um (pauses) no.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kim, when did you, first experience henna? How did you react to it?
Kim: My first experience when I saw it, was
complete disinterest. Well the first time I saw it in a book, was in a book of
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Can you say about what year that was?
Kim: I’d say about eight years from today.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So about ninety-seven?
Kim: Sounds about right.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Do you have a recollection of the brand?
Kim: It may have been a Shelly cone.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK.
Kim: She had this cone and the wonderful person that gave it to her didn’t understand, yes she loved henna, but had no talent, so it was kind of useless for her, she asked me to henna her feet, and after I was done my hands were cramped, they were sore because of the pushing it out, and it was an awful lime green the color wasn’t very good, but it was so satisfying to have done such a pattern and the next day she had gone to work and a nice Indian lady had asked her how much I charged for weddings, and that day I was back in the saddle again. It was an immediate addiction.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Karam.
Karam: Like Kiran and Riffat I've grown up with henna, at weddings parties what have you, but I’ve always wanted to do it but never got around to it, I went to my nephew’s wedding last year and watching all this henna and I was like, ”I really want to do that,”. So I began to get started on it.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Question for, particularly Karam, Kiran, and Riffat, what family and holidays and occasions, did the henna come out specifically? Kiran first please
Karam: It was Diwali, and for weddings.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kiran, your family was Muslim, Hindu?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Sikh, Ok. What holidays other than Diwali? Any…or just that one?
Karam: Yep just Diwali and for weddings.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Riffat?
Riffat: Well I’m Muslim and for us we wore henna on Eid and, if we were going to a wedding.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…any other holidays?
Karam: I’m a Sikh and it was for Diwali and for weddings.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK..
Kiran: I lied…sorry…Karva Chauth as well, sorry.
Kiran: That’s because I don’t bother fasting for my husband.
Kim: You don’t? Really?
Kiran: No, I know mum used to put it on us for that as well
Kim: You don’t do any of that at all
Riffat: My mother never did that.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So again the three of you, Kiran, Riffat and Karam. Karam, would you say that your mother and grandmother wore more or less henna and did or more or less henna than you do?
Karen: No, a lot less, a lot less.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Lot less
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Grandmother?
Kiran: A lot less. She’s just…not interested
Riffat: Well we were the only family that came to
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So you came with out your mother?
Riffat: No came with my parents, but our family, um we were
the only ones that left
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Riffat, I would like you to talk, please about the years you were a young girl in school, tell us what years you remember, what those years were and what incidents you remember, surrounding your choice to use or to not use henna.
Riffat: "You just couldn't celebrate the fact that you were Asian."
Riffat: I can’t remember the year, I left school in 76. I
was 16 and all the years previously having been the only Asian girl in my
school, I grew up when there were not a lot of Asian people at all in
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So, through the late sixties and early seventies, which would have been the period when the beetles were bringing, back yoga, vegetarianism and visiting India, there was a reaction against people who were actually ethnically Indian or Pakistani, and who showed it by how they walked and how they dressed.
Riffat: How they dressed, yeah. I mean we would never wear our Asian clothes for instance; you just couldn’t celebrate the fact that you were Asian. Yes. I would say late seventies
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So it was ok for the Beatles but no ok for you?
Riffat: If you were actually really Asian then you know,
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: When did you see henna becoming acceptable? And how did that affect you?
Riffat: I think…I suppose in the last 15 years.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Beginning in 1990?
Riffat: Yeah. I suppose the generation of children born in this country, like Kiran’s generation…growing up getting married, having henna done, starting to wear their own clothes, being proud of who they are, speaking their own language, even, in public. I started to look at it in different eyes really.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So, you're saying up to '76 certainly you felt terrible pressure in school, to be white, and Kiran was born in 77, so she would have been in school during the early eighties, and early nineties so Kiran did you feel pressure in school to not be Asian?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Tell me about it please.
Kiran: The funny thing was there was a really popular girl at school also named Kiran as well but and I think because she acted as if she was white and…you know…she sort of made more effort with the white people than she did with the Indians she was welcomed with open arms it was like, “You’re OK. It’s just the other ones we don’t like.” I don’t really remember the English kids really speaking to me
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What proportion of the students where you were going to school were white and proportion were Indian?
Kiran: Probably about 80% were white, that was in my year…for the kids born in 77 there was only about probably eight or nine Indian or Pakistani people.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Were there any West Indian people also?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Were they treated differently?
Kiran: Yes they were treated like the English kids, because of the way they lived. You know…they weren’t cooking curries or anything, or doing anything differently.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Just out of curiosity were there Indians of West Indian descent, immigrating in? There is an Indian community, and was this different or the same?
Kiran: Oh yeah. There weren’t any of those children at my school; it was just West Indians Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis, and the English people.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: You felt that they were more assimilated, more accepted than you were?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So when you showed up to school with henna how were the reactions?
Kiran: “That’s disgusting…What is that.?”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: This lasted until, certainly through the eighties.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: When did you begin to see a change or acceptance?
Kiran: Madonna…that was it.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Ninety-six or ninety-seven
Kiran: Since this it’s just been “Like wow.” I think also the way people have applied mehndi, the art of applying it has changed as well. You’re not just applying a blob on your hand…not using matchsticks anymore. So because the patterns are so pretty these days, the English people actually sort of sit up and take notice.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Ok so you feel that henna changed, and the appreciation of it changed? And probably broken, a few barriers?
Kiran: Yes, it’s broken a few barriers I think, Yeah
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Karam how was it…what were the reactions when you were in school?
Karam: The school I was at there were a lot of Indian kids there.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: How many do you think? What percentage?
Karam: At least 30
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: That’s a fairly significant minority
Karam: It was, yeah.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So after Diwali or after Eid.
Karam: "...they'd say "Eeew...what's that?"
Karam: Weddings, yeah…We would go back with our blobs and paint, and they’d say “Eew, what’s that?” And you’d have to try and… Even the teacher would say go and take it off. “We can’t take it off.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So there was no comprehension of what it was, and the reaction was negative or mild curiosity?
Karam: Yeah it was negative, “Ugh…its looks disgusting.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: At what point did you see an attitude change?
Karam: I’d say it was like Kiran said it was…right about Madonna time, I’d get, um at work now, some of the women because I am the only Indian person in the whole of the firm where I am now, when they see this some of the women are like “That’s really nice,” and other are like not confident at all they’re still negative about it, even now. Even though they know about it they have seen it on the telly, they have seen it advertised, they’re still…”Oh no, I couldn’t have that on my hands.”
Kim: I got that today.
Karam: Did you?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Again to the three of you: When you see white kids lining up…say, at a bad henna artist at street fairs, how do you react to that?
Karam: Bad henna?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…sloppy, bad henna where they clearly have no clue as to what they are doing, there making money as fast as they can. How do you feel?
Karam: You feel a little bit disappointed, that you just don’t really say anything in this area, whatever.
Riffat: I don’t mind actually because at least they are experiencing henna, and henna is not just for traditional Indian bridal work it is an beautiful art form and that is what opened my eyes to it. When Madonna come out with her video and everything it was not just to be worn at weddings, because traditionally it is just for weddings, or Eid or religious festivals, just by women, and I think it is nice that it crossed cultures, and it can be worn.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Now I remember that there were articles in Indian newspapers and commentary when Madonna did the MTV movie awards after the “Frozen” video, where she had her henna on and it was very prominently displayed she was doing some fairly ridiculous dancing, quasi-Hindu, a lot of, I would assume conservative Hindus had a fit. One of the points was “How dare Madonna use something that is supposed to be for virgin brides?”
Riffat: Well that’s just a snobby attitude from those
people. You know henna didn’t just come out of
Kiran: But a lot of Indian people were like that.
Riffat: And especially when men get henna done now when they have armbands, they say: “That’s not for men. Men shouldn’t be wearing henna it’s just a female thing.” I don’t agree with them,
Karam: We used to just use henna at home when it was on holidays, we’d get some henna out. We put it on neighbors kids, their little twins about 4 years old. We put it on them, and they went home and their mother said “What have you got into?” She scrubbed it and scrubbed it, and this henna wouldn’t come out and then she came over to our house, and she goes “What have your children done to my children’s hands?” I was like, “Its only henna, it will come out in a few days.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Monica, when you first put henna on your hands, or if someone put henna on your hands, and you were walking around with it, what reactions did you get?
Monica: Only positive.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Why do you think this was the case? Any ideas? Or did you just happen to run into very happy people?
Monica: Yeah they either don’t react at all or they comment on it. They like it.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Catharine, How did people react to you the first time you came in with henna on your hands?
Catharine: "...it's a confused reaction..."
Catharine: Most people are a bit confused especially where I am where there’s a very small ethic community. It’s mainly white people and they want to look but they don’t want to be seen to be looking, and they want to say something but they're not sure what they should say. Some people say, “Oh what’s that?” and then have a closer look. Some say, “Oh, you poor thing what’s wrong with your hands?” Or they say “You’re wearing pretty gloves.” And I go, “Oh no, it’s henna.” So it’s a confused reaction, but once people know what it is and I have done my little 20 second explanation then they say, “Wow, that’s interesting.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kim, how do people react when you go swanning about in saris and henna…hugely obviously a red haired, Canadian white girl?
Catharine: I often get mistaken for Hindu, I am assumed that I
am married to an Indian man, and usually positive reaction to confused. I don’t
get a lot of anything else, either way, and I get a
lot of men in
Riffat: But they couldn’t believe a white girl had done henna, on her hands?
Kim: I get a lot of that, there was even one time, somebody had grabbed my hand, I was almost like a doll. They had grabbed my hand yanked it, were examining it and only talked to her [indicating Riffat], “When, did you…did you do this henna? How did you do this?” I might have had well not have been there, it was assumed that this wonderful lady took pity on a poor dumb white girl and did a beautiful job, I wasn’t even spoken to until afterwards. It really was quite funny.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK...Let's go into...back all the way around again is there a person, a time or place where you would never do the henna, Monika if someone would come up to you. Or in a situation where you’re they’re with henna cone, and someone says ‘"I want it," and you say are like "Henna...what? No, I’m not going to do it." Can you ever see a place or time that would happen, or did you ever end up doing henna you really wish you hadn’t?
Monica: It’s hard to say because I’ve only done henna on myself, so I do not have the experience.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Have you ever had henna on and kept your hands in your pockets hoping no one would notice?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Catharine?
Catharine: At my last job interview, I did get the job but I did have the remnants of henna on my hands, I sort of sat with my hand covered, but by the end of the interview, it was totally OK and they didn’t say anything. They had seen my website because I’d obviously put that in my CV so they knew I did it and it didn’t count. They didn’t notice, they didn’t mind so it was OK.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Kiran, is there a person or place where you just would not pull out a henna cone or was there a place where did henna and you thought, “I shouldn’t have been there or I shouldn’t have done it?”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Riffat?
Riffat: Well I do, a lot of corporate events. Big companies will have big parties, they hire me as a henna artist, and I get a lot of drunk people coming up to me, and they “…just want a tattoo anywhere, down there, you know…” And I say no to that obviously. One guy wanted a bar code across his forehead. Some of my henna friends have done henna on some people’s faces, but I thought he probably wouldn’t appreciate it waking up in the morning with a big henna tattoo across his forehead, so I don’t do drunk people if they ask for silly places..and children under 6 I don’t do. Especially at Indian weddings I’ll get a mother with a little baby in her arms, and she asks, ‘oh can you just do a little dot or flower on her hand’, and I just politely say no. So I wouldn’t do them.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Kim, when have there been times where it was just, “No, this is not going to happen.”
Kim: The only thing I can think of off the top of my head, when I am doing a festival, an event or a party, there is inevitably a 14 to 16 year old child, that wants the Playboy bunny in very low or inappropriate place, at which point I lie and say I don’t know what it is and I don’t know how to do it and I’m not going to. And I don’t put names on children, because that is just like a pedophile open flag. I don’t do rude places…not really, I’ve done women for full body…pretty much…except for the obvious. I wouldn’t do guys, I’m very shy about like if its not very appropriate, and I don’t take private appointments with men…ever. And that’s about it…really.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Karen?
Karam: I haven’t done any.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…good stuff. Around again. When was your absolute favorite time to do henna and what was your best experience? Monica? Even if it is henna on your own hands, or being here
Monica: Yeah being here.
Catharine: The Big Chill festival…I’ve been going for a few years now and its pretty full on, it’s a huge amount of work but I’ve now got repeat customers who come to the field where I’m at and they’re waiting for me. They see me…
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: what is the Big Chill festival, please?
Catharine: It’s a music festival in Ledbury, in Herefordshire, and it’s based around a lot of art, new music…things people perhaps haven’t heard before. A lot of fairly famous DJs go and play there. But they do sort of special sets…more about what they want to do rather than what the people want to hear so it is sort of interesting.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What sort of patterns do you do when you do that festival?
Catharine: I take along a few books, I take along photographs, I’ve got quite a big display. We’ve got some photos but generally I always put the design of the festival on my hand, and most people say, “I’d like something like that” or “What can you do for this amount of money?” and “I want it to be like that.” I’ve noticed a change. The first year I did it everyone wanted tribal…everyone wanted very symmetrical designs.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What year would that be?
Catharine: That would be 3 yrs ago or so…2002.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: That is a good question I would like to come to. Have you seen pattern preferences change? But we’ll get back to that question. Kiran, what was the best ever, most wonderful, henna experience you ever had?
Kiran: Last night
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…what made it good for you?
Kiran: I’ve had a really, really nice time here and it’s nice learning from everybody. I learned a lot from Riffat yesterday, a lot about intricate designs. I learned a lot from you today, about the history of henna and the harquus and everything else. And its just nice getting to actually meet people that you talk to by e-mail occasionally, or, y’ know you sort of hear from…not personally but by sort of looking at the forum every day you see what Catherine has to say, its nice to actually meet the person, in the flesh…Kim..all of you and Monica as well.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…other than last night I do need to know some other time that is very significant.
Kiran: I can’t think of anything that was really, really significant, to be completely honest with you. I love doing bridal mehndi. Last week, Friday was really nice, and I had a really nice family I was doing it for. I did the bridal mehndi and then I did everybody else afterwards. It was nice, because the family was very polite…no one was really pushing you or pissing you off or anything. That was nice but nothing really sort of sticks out because I think because once you’ve done one, they sort of all blend in. The bad ones stick out, though.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Has there been a wedding that was just…you want to go home and hide for a while?
Kiran: There probably has…I’m just trying to think which one, though. There was one that I did last year…a Pakistani bride. Her family were really strict, and they sort of did my head in after a while because they were just like, “…you can’t do this, you can’t do that…” You can’t really sort of talk properly either. You couldn’t really discuss anything with the bride because the bride had to stay really, really quiet. She wasn’t allowed to say much. Another one was one that I did in January where she just kept going on and on, just talking about the greatness of God, and all the rest of it and you know. I was like, “Let me get out of here now and hide.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…that’s interesting. Riffat?
Riffat: I've got two, actually. My ultimate henna gig, I
suppose, was during the Queen’s jubilee visit to
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Kim, can you recall something spectacularly wonderful?
Kim: They really do all kind of blend in, but the one that I can think of was…not only did I get great pictures, but the bride was sweet and funny and smart and charming. They were quite well off, and they had tented the whole backyard, and there was a DJ, and it was catered, and instead of being separated from everybody, she pulled out, of the house…we put a wicker couch in the middle of everything, including the dance floor that they had built on their lawn. They put cloth down on it and everyone sat on pillows and all the ladies sang, and I did, their henna right in the middle of everything. Including.me and, the bride liked the same songs so while she was drying, a couple times we were like, dancing. So it was just fun all the way around. I was treated completely like I was a member of the family. I even went home with a doggie bag. They couldn’t imagine I was even going to go home with out feeding my husband, because he had picked me up. So it was not as far as pattern, et cetera, but for just overall wonderful people and experience, I think it was my most fun.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What was the ethnic origin of that family?
Kim: Hindu, and it was absolutely…
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Can you guess a region they came from or were they Canadian born?
Kim: She was Canadian born.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: and the family that was hosting this was?
Kim: I’m not exactly sure. But they sure were wonderful people.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Karam, what was your best experience?
Karam: I don’t know because I’ve only started a few weeks ago. I do enjoy practicing at the career center. I just take a couple of left over cones and I just practice on them, and I really enjoy that, and the girls seem to like it as well.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What ethnicity are the girls who seem to enjoy it?
Karam: They are mostly Sikh girls. They are very friendly with my daughters as well. They think it’s great. One day hopefully I’ll get to do brides as well.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: For the people here who have been doing henna for a long time. Kiran, I think you qualify for that. Let’s start with Catharine. ou’ve been at it for a couple of years, and you had mentioned seeing the character of patterns requested change. I’m curious…what patterns are requested, and to what extent do you have to explain what henna is to the public?
Catharine: When I first started, doing the fairs and festivals I do, I made the mistake of taking too many designs, and people couldn’t decide. They didn’t really know what they wanted because, it was perhaps the first or second time they’d got henna. So they weren’t sure what they wanted either, and so most people would go for something, tribal or something very safe, depending on who it was, that was asking.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Safe as in unobtrusive or safe as in culturally accessible?
Catharine: I think in, always something very small or something on the upper arm or something inside the arm or on the shoulder. Now I take fewer designs, I take more of my own designs, and most people will sort of home in on what they think…”I want something like that…Could you do this…Could you do that…” And I think that’s where I get a lot of my success because I can say, “Yes I can add the extras. It doesn’t have to be the exact like it is on the page.” And people say, “I’ve just bought this ring can you do something that will match this ring?” An I say, “Well I’ll try.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Kiran you’ve been doing henna long enough and you've seen it since your childhood. How have you seen it change?
Kiran: I’ve seen it change from blobs, to actual patterns like we’re doing now. As Riffat mentioned earlier on, we used to use matchsticks and cocktail sticks to do mehndi, and I used to try and do patterns with those, and it used to take so long, to get even a small pattern going. And now it is so easy to do, you know you’ve got a cone and that’s it.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: what do you think is driving the change? What makes people want more fancy patterns? What makes henna artists attempt more complex patterns?
Kiran: Its more the sort of publicity of people like Ash Kumar, because since he’s sort of come out, because of all the patterns he’s gotten, I think henna is more in your face now, as you’ve seen in all the magazines, and things as well, you know. People are looking at the designs in there and are like, “Wow,” and…you know “It does look nice and its not sort of as bad as we think it is.” And I mean the colors people are getting now are much better than that nasty sort of orange color you used to get before. The Henna Page has helped enormously. It’s helped so many henna artists, not the ones that are in the magazines. It’s helped people like me and like Riffat…Karam as well. You sort of know how to get a decent color. It’s showed you how to actually do the patterns and everything properly. Just little things that make a lot of importance.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: How easily available was information on how to improve?
Kiran: "Nobody wanted to share information with you."
Kiran: It wasn’t, nobody wanted to share information with you. Nobody wanted to tell you how to get a dark color. No one wanted to tell you have to do silly little things like flicks. Nobody would actually sit down and explain to you. There was one lady I used to work in her salon, just learning the basics on you know how to wax and thread and everything and I kept begging her and begging her, “Can you show me how you do the mehndi,” and “I’m really, really interested,” and she never ever…she wouldn’t take me out with her, to sort of see her do the work. But the funny thing now; I’m not trying to sound big-headed, but when I sort of go into her shop now and I have henna on my hand, and you see the pictures she’s got on her walls, it’s just like “Oh, well, whatever,” and she’ll sort of look at my work and say, “Oh why don’t you come in one day and, we can sit down and we can learn from each other.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So, why do you think the information was not shared before?
Kiran: Indians in general can be very secretive about things like this. They’re scared of the competition. They don’t like that. They don’t want people to be able to sort of go out and earn money doing the same thing that they’re doing. There’s another lady she’s quite famous in the Indian community. She does mehndi and all the rest of it. I was doing a bridal last year. My cousin was getting married. I got back to my cousins house at about twelve o’clock at night. She’d had her mehndi done in the day time, and it was this lady who had done her henna for her, and when I looked at it I was just like, “Oh my God!” because I’d never actually seen this woman’s work, I’d never looked at it up close, and it was really bad. It was disgusting. The next day; the color was of the oranges that you’ve got there.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So, this woman who did incredibly bad henna, what do you think her ethnic origin was?
Kiran: She was Gujarati Indian. They’re notoriously…they’re known not to share information, and unless you pay them a ridiculous amount of money, they wont teach you anything. She charged my cousin I think 450 pounds to do the henna.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Can you continue on with that Riffat?
Riffat: But,even..you know…these people…even when they teach you to do henna and they charge you a phenomenal amount to go and do their course…and I’ve actually done about four henna courses now, they’ll show you, everything but what goes in their mixture. They’ll leave one vital ingredient out. So your mixture will never be as good as theirs. Now, I originally never went into bridal henna because I just thought I could be the best henna artist…I’m naturally artistic anyway, I can do lots of pretty patterns…but the color doesn’t come out because I haven’t gotten the right paste, I’ve literally ruined that brides’ wedding day because henna is such an important part of their wedding day.. The first thing that happens, when anyone sees a bride is, “Ooh shows me your henna.” They’ll literally grab her hands to see her henna. Then it’ll be, “Oh that’s a nice outfit,” “That’s nice makeup,” but it’s always the henna first. I actually used to buy my paste ready made, form a woman in south Southall. Again, she would never ever tell me what was in her paste. I would buy her cones and sometimes they would be nice sometimes they weren’t. She gave me an old batch and I though this is terrible. I’ve got best friends that have been doing henna a lot longer than me, and I used to say to them, “Can I come out with you? You know…I’ll and sit there and watch? I don’t want to do anything, I just want to get the experience.” But again, wouldn’t let me, wouldn’t take me out with them and they wouldn’t tell me where they got their powder from or what was in their mixture. It just made me even more determined, and when I discovered the henna page I found all the information myself, and I did the experiments, lots of research and everything.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: It makes a difference having the chemistry link.
Riffat: Definitely. Two of the best things I learned as I said earlier, was making my own cones, and getting the right supply of powder and the right mixture. And it’s all so easy when you find it out. No big secret, no big rocket science or anything, and it’s all there on the henna page for free.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So when the secretive people want to teach classes where they give away all but one of their secrets, how much do they charge for this class that gives all but one secret?
Riffat: They are going for about 600 pounds.
Kiran: A thousand pounds.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: For how long?
Riffat: They sort of spread it out…stretch it out over six weeks but you get about two hours a week. In a whole class full of people I’ve known people who’ve done courses and they still don’t know how to roll cones, or they’ve come away with not having the confidence to actually do henna. So there just like moneymaking…
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…Kim, how do you see its change since you’ve started working? What different patterns, different characters, what are people asking for now that they didn’t ask for in the beginning?
Kim: You know, I’ve been really, really lucky that most of the time, when I do henna, even when I am doing it for a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah the patterns I put out are of my own and I tell them most of it falls out of my brain and onto the skin and that’s all of these photos. So I get a lot of artist’s choice. Aside from that then I get the tribal, but I’m getting a lot less of that now. Now I was getting the tribal and a little butterfly, and I’m still getting that but the tribal has totally dropped off and I’m getting a lot more, “I’d like something Indian.” I get that a little more: “Give me something Indian,” or “I like the peacocks,” or, “I saw National Geographic and I really liked what this bride had on.” So I do get a lot more ethnic designs or ethnic fusion patterns, and as far as…like when you were talking…I just thought…when I was sort of starting to do henna…a lot of ladies…I never really learned from anybody in Winnipeg, and they would come up to me and go “How did you get the color?” And I would tell them everything, and they would look at me like “Uh huh…like, fine…don’t tell me,” because it was just too simple and they were looking for the magic ingredient and I must be lying to them. Because they constantly lied to each other. Or they’ll be friends just long enough to get what they considered the secret and then they’re out the back door. One lady who I guess was my biggest competition…I guess she doesn’t do a very good job at all she’ll do what she does, and several ties she has gone to a wedding where I’m hennaing the bride, and she’s doing the little kids at a rickety table in a dark room and she’s not been very happy with that, and she would never talk to me before, now she wants to be my best friend and wants to come out with me and do henna.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kim, tell me about some of the times when you’ve walked in as a henna artist, and there has been the, “What is this white girl doing here?” I want to hear these.
Kim: "...the bear on the bicycle syndrome..."
Kim: It doesn’t happen a whole lot most of the time. I call it the “bear on the bicycle syndrome,” because they know that I’m white, they’re like, “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve found,” so when I arrive most people are very interested in watching, because some people are sort of like, “No, you’re just kidding me. That couldn’t be a white girl.” They just don’t...and the worst case…they just know it could possibly be me and in others there’s acceptance. But the worst one was one lady who did hire me sight unseen, and when I came to the door she had the plastic smile on, the, “Oh my God, how do I get this woman out of my living room without looking rude,” and she just had terror in her eyes and I don’t blame her. In her eyes if you were getting married, and the woman getting married showed up in a burlap sack, you’d be pretty nervous too. Well, how could I possibly know what I was doing when I was white. I sat down. I just bombarded her with some patterns, and I started by the end of the first hand she had it raised and was like “Oh my God, isn’t this beautiful,” and everything else and I was just about adopted, but she could not…she was looking like a rabbit trying to escape. She was just wanting me out of her house so bad, when I got out there. She just couldn’t believe she had managed to get this person in her house to do her henna. She got over it but it was terrifying for me because, I was convinced I was about to be bounced out of the house. I was convinced it was that close. When she opened the door she was looking around like, “Where is the henna artist? Are you the assistant?” “No I’m the artist,” and she was not pleased at all. Not even a little.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK. Now some questions for the people who are regularly doing this for money, and have cone it for some time. What do you average per hour when you’re doing your henna work and, what proportion of your income do you think comes from henna? Catharine?
Catharine: A very small proportion of my income, because by the time I’ve paid for the insurance, the equipment, the training, the books, the trip to India that I’m going to do, there’s probably not much of a profit. I can range from making anywhere from 200 pounds in a day to making 600 pounds in a day in a fair or festival situation.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK. Tell me what the median income would be in the
Catharine: Probably, what would you say about 100 pounds a day. Well, minimum wage is 5 pounds 85.
Kiran: My wage per day is about 90 pounds per day with my straight job.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: And when you go out and do henna you earn about what? You don’t have to discuss it if you don’t want to.
Kiran: Well on Friday I made about 600 pounds, in 5 hours.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So it’s very attractive when you can get… I am asking these not to be difficult, I know that there are people studying women’s economies, who are really going to want figures if they possibly can.
Kiran: I am earning a lot more than my husband is earning at the moment, A lot more money doing henna and obviously working full time. We found it very difficult, I was living with my in-laws for six years and we moved into our own house in September and I would not have been able to afford the furniture, or a few of the things for the house that I’ve done without my henna money.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So it’s seasonal work?
Kiran: Yes it is seasonal. Summer is really, really busy.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So you were able to really augment your household income, for a few months a year.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: is yours also seasonal?
Catharine: Yes, it is very seasonal. I also choose specific fairs and festivals I work at to ear money because that means I can go and indulge, in doing charity events and help raise money, or doing freebies just to raise the awareness in the area that I live because the awareness is so low. I could make a lot more money, and I know if I compare myself to other henna artists who are, often male, often very, very well enshrined in the whole festival circuit…for them it is their way of life and they charge a lot more money than I do. They have different designs to me I so I know I am filling the gap really.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Riffat, henna is most of your income at present?
Riffat: Makeup and henna I would say is not equally split. I
used to do more makeup. It used to very seasonal…June to August was my wedding
season. Before then and after that I really didn’t have anything but now I
would say I’ve been doing weddings since January. Every week.
I get about two or three weddings. April’s coming up. I think I’ve got about
ten hennas booked, just for April. Whenever there’s a Bank Holiday in
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What do you think you can make in a day’s henna work?
Riffat: Well I don’t charge per hour. I can do two full bridals in a day, and I could make about 600 pounds.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kim?
Kim: Well I could only dream of that. I have a very small pool to pick from. I usually…depending on whether I am hired out by an agent for some events…then I can make Canadian about $235 to $2-300 and something dollars per the evening, and that’s about four hours. For a bride I charge by the hour at 95$ an hour and that’s for semi-heavy palms, light back, light feet. Then it goes up from there.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: What would be minimum wage in
Kim: I think we’re at $10 an hour. So it’s still good…like there’s nothing wrong with it…but it’s sporadic, and I do this because I have a passion for it and I gotta admit I don’t take every gig that comes along. I prefer brides and I prefer things where I’m going to be able to do more of what I like to do…rather than…I don’t do a lot of festivals, I don’t really enjoy the festivals that much so I tend to avoid them, but, the money is there, if I just wanted want to just make more money, festivals are definitely the way to go because we can earn…I did one festival one year and I think for the day…ten hours that I was there…I think I made about $900, so the money’s there, if you want to do it.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So when…I believe I am hearing that each of you are now putting more hours into doing henna, and making more than you used to.
Kim: Oh yes.
Riffat: And then I started teaching, so its not just applying henna. I’ve started doing henna classes as well.
Catharine: I do workshops as well.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Last question, going around, what is your very favorite thing about doing hennaand what do you absolutely dislike about it? Monica.
Monica: I like everything.
Catharine: I love everything but the best thing for me is when somebody says, “My hands are horrible, my feet are horrible. You put the henna on and then I can’t stop looking at my hands. You’ve made my hands beautiful,” and I think that’s just so nice to know that you’ve made someone feel good. What I don’t like about it is it can be absolutely back-breaking, and there’s a certain point in the day, where you think, “Why am I doing this,” and when you’ve got all your gear for a festival and it’s the end you’re so shattered and you just think, “Why am I doing this,” and right away you book the next year and you get on and you do it.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Karam, what’s your favorite thing about henna and what would you real like to go without?
Karam: I think what I’ve experienced…it’s just satisfaction of seeing someone happy with what they’ve got.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kiran?
Kiran: I really hate doing other people, like party henna, I can’t stand it.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: like corporate parties or…
Kiran: No, just sangeet parties. It’s just headache, backache you’re just knackered the next day. I really, really love doing bridal mehndi.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Can you explain the difference for the tape working a bride and working a sangeet?
Kiran: When you do a bride the patterns are usually pre-picked, you sit down, you know what’s coming and you know around about how long it’s going to take. It’s just not too stressful. Doing a sangeet party, you’ve got little children running around, banging into you and you have people walking up to you and “Can you add a bit more here. Can I do this. Can I…” It’s just a headache…big, big headache.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Am I hearing “chaotic and demanding?”
Kiran: Yes. Indian people are so demanding its just…just ridiculous. And when you tell them, “Look that’s gonna be a little bit more. Five pound more or so,” they say “Can you just do a little bit, please. We’re a really broke. We haven’t got any money.” It’s like “Don’t ask for it, then.”
Catharine: I think that happens anywhere, when I’ve done free henna and you are just deluged, and you look up and there’s forty or fifty people trying to get to the front of the queue. And no queuing system works. I have not found a queuing system that works..
Kiran: No not with Indians.
Catharine: Not with anyone!
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Can you comment on that Riffat? Again, the difference between doing a bridal and a sangeet and handling mad chaos.
Riffat: Well I just whip them into line, really. I have got like a little rough whip.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: You have a whip?
Riffat: Yeah. (laughing) I do corporate events and they just get everyone to queue up.
and that works well really. But, at sangeets, I have a little raffle ticket book and I’ve made a sign up as well that says I am only there doing 5 or 8 pound designs. I only put out those designs that cost that much. If they want more I think I’ve just learned over the years to be firm, and just say, “If you want more that would just be another 5 pounds.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So, at your sangeet they pay per hand?
Riffat: They pay per hand and I write it down at the end of the day. There’s different ways it can be paid. But I think for me having spent so long of my childhood and my teenage years, being ashamed of being Asian, I just love doing my weddings and for me it’s brought me back into my own culture again and I feel like I belong. Finally I’ve done a full circle. And that’s really, really nice.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: So Kim, you’re obviously doing the circle backwards. (everyone laughs) Can you add comments on the differences in between weddings and Sangeets and handling general chaos?
Kim: I’ve really, really lucky that the chaos has been somewhat minimal. Usually, there’s…I don’t know if I just project helplessness, but, there is usually some masiji there to protect me, like, “Leave the girl alone, you’ve already had yours!!” And she’ll shuffle people off. The worst thing…the worst chaos I ever had was actually at my own temple, where we did Karva Chauth and there were two different fights in my line. There was…
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: I want to hear about the fights in your line. This has got to be good!
Kim: There was me, another lady, and another lady all doing mehndi, and I felt so bad for them, because my queue was long and theirs was barely existent and people were popping open my books and asking them to do my patterns. My patterns are not distinctly Indian. A lot of it is stuff they’d never even seen before. Most of them don’t have any kind of art background. It’s “I do this design,” and that’s it. And they were having it plopped down in front of them and saying, “I want this!” And, needless to say, what was coming out wasn’t looking like the patterns from the photos in the books that I’ve done. And their books were all stuff that they’d copied off the internet or out of books from the library and there were almost no photos of anything they had done, whereas mine is all stuff that I’ve done…in real books. The lineups were somebody would cut and there would be a huge line, or a huge argument, or an old lady who would decide to cut the line but if a child tried to do it they were just about whapped about the head and sent to the back. I had my face down, so there wasn’t much I could do about policing the line and I wasn’t going to. It was like, “Next…and you guys can fight it out.” I was not going to get involved in that and the thing that was both flattering and felt really, really awful was when two different times I would hear, “ I don’t want the crappy stuff over there. I want this one.” Thank you for liking my stuff but we’re all here, I donate my time to the temple. I didn’t get paid a penny. I was there on my own to do my bit. I was there doing charity, and they were also there doing it for free.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: OK…to wrap this up, one question. Would you teach your daughters to do this and where do you think they’ll be doing twenty years from now?
Catharine: Yes, my son and daughter, get hold of the cones and they practice on themselves, they practice on paper. They sit and draw. I’ve got a lot of printouts which, because the printer was running out of ink, my HennaPage books didn’t come out as I wanted them. They sit and they trace over the drawings, redraw them, and embellish them and they say, “Mommy, can you do this on me?” And they have great ideas as well, really nice ideas. They’ll say, ‘I want an empty heart and I want it surrounded by flowers.’ And I think, “Hmm…that’s a good design.”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kiran, would you teach your daughter how to do henna? What do you think she’ll be doing in a generation?
Kiran: I’ve got a son and he does exactly the same thing that Cat’s just mentioned. He’ll grab my cone and he’ll start messing around with it. He’s only three years old, by the way, so he’s not doing anything extensive, just like blobs and things like that he’ll just grab it and does swirls and things like that. And I would teach him henna…he loves having it on his hands. He likes flowers, and yeah, I would teach him and if I had a daughter I’d love to teach her as well.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Riffat?
Riffat: My daughter, Sabina, she’s eighteen now and just from watching me roll my cones, mix my paste, she used to just pick up my dead cones, and just practice, and she’s actually taught herself how to do henna. When I’ve got big parties…sangeet parties…I’ll actually take her along with me and she’ll sit there, and she makes quite good money. And she actually spent a year at beauty college to get into makeup and henna. So yeah, if she goes into it I’d be really happy. My little boy who’ss seven, he helps to mix my paste and he likes to take part whenever I’m getting my henna ready for jobs.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Kim? Yes, your appropriated daughters.
Kim: My appropriated daughters…Shelly loves to get henna, and Puja likes to get henna but is very shy and will say, “Well whatever you like.” And neither of them have any talent or interest towards it. They love to get it, but could care less about learning about it. They’re consumers they are not creators.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Karam, yes, please.
Karam: I’ve got two daughters, the older one couldn’t draw to save her life but the younger one is an artist and she can do minute details and at my nephews’ wedding she actually copied a henna onto my older daughters hand and it was absolutely beautiful. I think she would take it up. She loves it.
Riffat: Can I just add a little bit?
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Please…
Riffat: Twenty-seven years ago when I first told my father I wanted to be a makeup and henna artist, he actually started laughing, and he said why don’t I get a normal job like working in a bank or being a teacher or being an accountant. He just couldn’t understand how I was going to make a living doing makeup, or henna which is quite artistic. In Asian culture that isn’t considered a respectable career.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: No not at all.
Riffat: And even my teachers in school at that time, they had no information at all about henna, about makeup…how to go into that as a career, and everyone…it seemed like everyone was trying to put me off going into that career path. But I’m very stubborn and I thought, “No. I’m going to do this and prove everyone wrong.” And I worked in a factory, saved up the money, did my course. Henna…a lot of it I’ve taught myself, and henna I’ve taught myself through magazines, watching people on the internet. And I’m really glad that I stuck at it. And I can honestly say I love what I do and when I get paid its like a bonus, you know I’ve sat there I’ve had a chat with the bride. They have fed me and then they give me some money at the end and it’s like, “Wow!”
Catherine Cartwright-Jones: Well I am very grateful that you people were here. We will be making these recordings and transcriptions available in the future to those people who are trying to research henna. I think if we keep trying to keep going at it year after year it will really help researchers and students to hear first-hand voices of the people who do this craft. Thank you all.