The HennaPage Oral History Project
Recorded May 18, 2006, during the 3rd annual Las Vegas Henna Conference
Interviewer: Catherine Cartwright-Jones
Catherine: This is May 18, 2006, during the third Henna Page Las Vegas henna conference, and I am talking with Neeta Sharma, and Rashi Sannin. To begin, each of you tell me where you were born and where you live now.
Neeta: I was born in Mumbai, India and now I live in Patterson, California.
Rashi: I was born in Delhi, India and now I live in New York.
Catherine: In New York? About when did you move to the United States? Neeta?
Neeta: I moved here February 2001.
Catherine: And Rashi, when did you move here?
Rashi: I moved here, three months ago.
Catherine: Neeta, when did you first meet henna, when did you first see henna done?
Neeta: It’s part of our culture. So growing up, you always saw it around, you know… being done at weddings, different events, special occasions.
Catherine: So you remember it from childhood?
Catherine: And Rashi, is that the same for you?
Catherine: How does the henna that you see here today differ from what you saw in child hood?
Neeta: It was more of the traditional kind.
Catherine: OK... can you describe what you mean by traditional, what were the characteristics?
Neeta: Traditional was basic, again of a very traditional hand design or design on the feet which had all the traditional patterns, like the paintings of the leaves, the flowers.
Catherine: Were they as complex as you see now? In what ways were they different?
Neeta: From what I remember it was not as complex now I think again, In India, there’s a lot of different styles being adapted from different regions of the world that’s being incorporated, where is was much more simple before. Even fine…there used to be fine work, but you know, now it look’s very boring and simple patterns compared to what’s done now.
Catherine: Describe to me, three different patterns that you would have seen when you were a little girl.
Neeta: simple peacock, paisleys, and a lot of vines and leaves.
Catherine: Rashi, I assume that this was from childhood, how is the henna that you had in your childhood different from what you see today?
Rashi: I agree with Neeta, it was definitely very simple, there was not much attention paid on fineness of work, it was, you know, as long as you had henna you had henna. There wasn’t much distinction between good and bad henna, or fine and very fine henna. It was just people probably didn’t demand it and now, I think, with so much exposure people really want good work, because they know one style from another, and someone who is a henna needs to know this otherwise people say it is OK... to criticize them.
Catherine: What tools were used for application when you were a little girl? Neeta?
Neeta: I do remember cones in the beginning, but cones are a fairly, newer application tool.
Catherine: Can you guess when you first saw cones being used?
Neeta: Probably, about 30 years ago.
Catherine: About 30 years ago? What was the material for the cones?
Neeta: I would not remember.
Rashi: Milk bags.
Neeta: Yeah, milk bags. In India I know I used to use them all the time.
Catherine: So milk bags about 30 years ago so you’re probably dating this about 1980?
Catherine: And, Rashi, what materials did you see used when you were little?
Rashi: Only cones, made from plastic milk bags.
Catherine: Where would the henna have been purchased, back in the 80’s, 90’s, when you were in India? Where would you go to buy henna?
Rashi: You usually found them at most grocery stores, any sort of local news agents, everyone had henna.
Catherine: Now, Neeta would this have been in a box, or in a loose bag or in bulk that was scooped up?
Neeta: Usually, it’s in a box. I remember I used to buy ready made cones that the guys used to sell, and then you know use it, but it was usually in boxes or plastic packing.
Catherine: I have to get into slightly different questions with you, because you have slightly different experiences that, I haven’t recorded before. How was henna mixed in your house, in the 80’s and 90’s, what were the ingredients?
Neeta: Tea, coffee, cloves. Basically that.
Catherine: How were the cloves used?
Neeta: Just, everything was thrown into the pot and boiled and then cooled down, strained and then the henna was mixed in that. Then eucalyptus oil was added in it.
Catherine: So then you would have had a mild acid. Probably, about pH 5. Anything special about the tea?
Neeta: Well I think tea gives out the color. I think.
Catherine: Sometimes, it’s mildly acidic. I’ve noticed that well American tea make terrible henna.
Neeta: It’s pretty strong.
Catherine: You had stronger tea and stronger henna. What were your mixes like, Rashi?
Catherine: Now it is in my experiences in temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you have to go easy on the acid, and here we hit it with a lot more acid because it’s so much cooler. When you mixed your henna which was about pH 5 or 6, how long before you could use it and what temperature do you think the rooms were where it was left to sit out?
Neeta: Mumbai doesn’t go as high as the northern part of India. The maximum it goes up to is 35.
Catherine: So it was up to the mid-90’s Fahrenheit. Rashi?
Rashi: For me, I think we would use after about an hour, or two hours after soaking it all up. We were never allowed to keep it outside because we always felt, you know the top layer, once oxidized, the top layer that it forms. We felt that…this is what I was taught… it makes it very dry, and when you mix it, it adds lumps. So I always put it in the fridge when it was very hot outside.
Catherine: Neeta, what sort of patterns do you think your grandmother did, or have you seen your grandmother’s patterns?
Neeta: No one in my family did this; I am the first one.
Catherine: Really, OK... are you from a Hindu or Muslim background?
Catherine: OK...Do you feel there was a resistance to doing henna art?
Neeta: Oh, yes…big time.
Catherine: Tell me about this.
Neeta: It’s kind of not considered…you know…it’s a profession considered for people who are poor, not doing too well in life and…now I think it’s changed. It’s considered more reputable. I’ve experienced resistance especially from my dad because we did belong to the upper middle class, and I’ve been doing it for nineteen years now, so from that I probably four or five years I just did it for the maids daughter, on her wedding or some friends…I was just doing it for anyone who wanted me to do it. Once I started charging, my dad, he used to get upset when I had henna appointments, I would be coming home late, and he would get really, really mad.
Catherine: If I can ask, what caste would your family would have come from fifty years ago?
Neeta: We belong to the Vaishnav caste.
Catherine: Rashi, what can you tell me from your own experience?
Rashi: Um…again, it was very similar for me. My family didn’t understand why I wanted to get into this. It is a profession for most who are uneducated very low income get into. Obviously my family spent a lot of time and money getting me educated and they wanted to see me doing something completely different, and so I guess it was a big joke in my family. I actually got into it when I went abroad to study. So it’s OK to be able to do it on the side and make money. That’s fine because people understand that it’s very exotic over here but if I were doing the same back home, the money that you get, first of all is really, really little compared to here and there is just no appreciation, respect and the way people see you it is completely different, its kind of sad but that’s just the way it is.
Catherine: In terms of people studying these conversations that’s extremely interesting and they do need to know that, and I don’t think this has been explained to people before.
Neeta: It’s also the same for me as what she said because I went Australia to study in 1996 and that’s when Madonna had the hit…
Catherine: With “Frozen,” yes.
Neeta: …And that is when I got together with a belly dancer, in Australia. She advertised in the Indian newspaper that she wanted a henna artist. She and I did a lot of work and she really promoted, is and promoted me and I used to send back the newspapers that used to interview me, the television. I used to send all of that back, and that’s when my fathers’ attitude started changing. He would start to ask, so how did that go, how much money are you making, and when he would hear the rupee amount converted to the dollar, that is quite a bit, so his attitude started changing and he began sending henna to me. [laughs]
Catherine: Very interesting…the money made the difference. What is your educational background, Neeta?
Neeta: I have two masters' degrees. One is in social work and the other is in international social development.
Catherine: Nice. Rashi, are you still in school?
Neeta: No, I just graduated a couple months ago, I finished my masters in human resource management at the London School of Economics.
Catherine: That’s a great school. Very impressive! When you go out to do henna, how does the amount per hour compare to what you earn at your straight job?
Neeta: That’s the struggle I am having because henna…that’s …to do it full time. But at my job I have a really good position and I am making pretty good money so each time I am trying to reach that goal of making as much as I make at work, which right now I am really killing myself with trying to do a full job, and I want to try and reach to some comparable level where I am making that money, so that it would be easy for me to quit…that’s a big challenge right now.
Catherine: So the money is good, but it’s not as good or as stable as you real job. So
Rashi, how’s that going for you, was it supplementary as a student?
Rashi: It was great as a supplementary income because most student jobs, pay very little, and then I started working in London, and then I had to give it up when I came here, but if I compare it, it’s never really stable so you never know how much you are going to get. At the moment it is very little because I’m just starting out all over again in the U.S. I hope it’s going to get better. I’m sure it will.
Catherine: What would be a henna job that you have done, or would you do in the future that you would not want to do? What’s been a bad situation you have been in or what could you imagine a situation where you would not want to do henna at all?
Neeta: For me I think it would be like sometimes the inconsiderate people where I am doing weddings and stuff. Most of the time I am treated really nicely. It’s just when I am not treated nicely, those are the kinds of people I would definitely not want to come across. Some festivals I have had bad experiences, but again you learn through trial and error, where they project wrong numbers, where they say about 30,000 people coming and there is not even a thousand people there. That is one of the jobs I would really not want to go back to.
Catherine: Rashi have you ever been in unpleasant situations with a henna cone in your hand?
Rashi: I have. During university I did lots of parties where everyone was way too drunk to know what was going on, and people just get very inappropriate and sometimes there is no point doing anything on them, because they go and smudge it two seconds after that, and they come back and back. And it’s just very frustrating because they get abusive sometimes, they get irritated, and it's just some place where you’re not appreciated and that’s sad. It’s fun if it’s a student affair or a student evening, but when people get out of control henna is not right for it.
Catherine: When learning about it, henna…if you don’t want to use names, that’s fine… who have you gone to for instruction for henna or did you just pick it up on your or learn from family or friends?
Neeta: For me it was basically I picked it up on my own. It was just fascination initially with the cones. There was this girl who I used to treat like my older sister and I used to spend a lot of time at her house growing up and we used to play all these games and we used to get henna and put it into those milk bags and we used to put it in the corner and we would snip the bottom and try to make cones that was and like play around. And that’s how I got interested in it and then I wanted to learn more about how to make cones, how to get good henna and try and make patterns. Basically, I did that for eighteen years, and I felt I needed to better my skills and I am constantly wanting to improve. People always make the comment of, “Oh, you must be good,’ and I tell them, ‘No I am still learning,” because every day teaches me something different about henna.
In January of this year I did go to a really well-known bridal artist in India and it was a sad experience because for me it’s a passion. I was so looking forward to learning new things from her, and it feels good to be appreciated so I took a copy of my book and her first reaction was, “Oh there are so many mistakes in this.” She was so critical of it. A friend and I, we both decided to do this together, and we went and there was no smile on her face, and I kept calling her from here and I was so excited and that was the highlight of my trip and she was not willing to share. I paid the full price, like the whole fee, which is almost $500, which she would train a student for two years there and I was there for six days, because I did not need the basics, and she said, “No you have to do the whole course.” So I said ‘OK,’ but she was not willing to share what she had. She wanted us to just draw over there. The first day she gave both of us one sheet a sheet and she said, “Copy these designs,” and we said: “We are here only six days. Are we just supposed to just sit here and copy? When are we going to learn?”
So then we asked if she would photocopy and give us, she said, ‘No.’ The next day, we said “Give us separate sheets,” so most of the time we would just copy the outline and they would come in between and say, “This needs to be improved.” I admit there has definitely been a change in my style, but I know, I could have gotten much more out of that experience. From here I was promised, we would be the only students, and all the other students were to be given the week off and they will come back the next week. All the classes were going on, everyone was coming and going, so everything was going on. None of the promises were fulfilled. So, it was a real disappointment.
Catherine: Tell me what she considered mistakes? You said she looked at your book... and saw nothing but mistakes. What did she consider to be mistakes?
Neeta: Just with her idea on how a pattern should slope, where, for example, if I’ve done some kind of a flower somewhere, in her mind that flower has to be repeated, somewhere else, but I had something else in that place. So she was so critical: “Oh, you did this wrong…this flower should have been here.” And one more thing which I found so odd…I had taken a copy to give her as a present but she didn’t say, “May I keep it,” or anything like that she was just like, “I’m keeping this.”
Catherine: Rashi where did you learn, where have you turned to learn more, are you entirely self taught or have people taught you things?
Rashi: Again I’ve picked it up while growing up and I haven’t had any sort of formal training, I just used to sit and talk to people I used to do it in the street, I would talk to people and ask a hundred questions, but again most people are very reluctant to share anything that they know for some reasons. The only thing I could get out of them is what to mix into the paste…you know very simple stuff. This conference is the first time I have gotten any formal education and I’m very excited about it.
Catherine: That’s great. Neeta, what do you do that no one else does? What is special about your henna?
Neeta: I don’t think there is anything special [laughs]. Maybe a lot of people said which is true which is my speed, which I have built up over doing it for nineteen years, which I know because a few weeks ago I did a sangeet party with another friend and we both were getting paid $60 an hour, but I was doing ten to twelve people, and then she was doing five or six people and we both go paid the same, which she works a lot less and I’m more hard. So, it’s speed I guess.
Catherine: So what do you think is unique about your henna, what makes it different from everyone else’s?
Rashi: I think, I’m still not very commercial about it and I’d like to sort of really get into it and I want to make each piece, as beautiful as I can. Even if someone pays me $20, I still want to make it as gorgeous as I can, which is probably really stretching out the $20 but I really get into it and I want to give everyone my best.
Neeta: It is my philosophy also. There was one lady bargaining with me like for $25. She was haggling…living in this big huge house, and in the end she says, “Make sure you make the design good.” I said that is me, no matter what, even if I am doing it free for someone, or if I am charging them, doing it for free, or getting paid less. I do not compromise on my work. I really want each person who gets something from me, to really enjoy what I have been able to give them.
Catherine: Neeta would you teach your daughter to do henna?
Rashi: I would…definitely.
Catherine: If there was something you could change about henna to make it better or easier, what would that change be?
Neeta: In what context?
Catherine: If there is something that frustrates you about henna that you could fix, either a characteristic of the paste or a characteristic of the business.
Rashi: Probably, the paste because I am still struggling to find the right consistency. It’s a hit and miss, last weekend I was at a festival and I was trying to make it more runny and it was like so runny, everyone was melting, it was hard, and then I panicked, I had everyone stand in the shade. Now I am a little more fickle than usual. I wanted to be more adventurous but that was kind of a disaster.
Catherine: Now apart form the paste if there was something you could change about the dynamic of the job, what would that be? Other than getting rid of the stupid people.
Neeta: For me I think the area where I am living in, I know that’s going to really pull me down because I live away from the bay area. I live away from everything so traveling wears me down. When I lived in Vancouver, everything was so easily accessible. I could reach a bride’s house in twenty minutes. So that part I feel like I am wasting, some days I travel like 300 miles.
Catherine: So in your area the Indian community is very dispersed.
Neeta: Yes, so I am traveling about a hundred miles back and forth for my job and then, if I’m going somewhere further after work and then going back home…
Catherine: So you get no sleep.
Neeta: Some days when I leave home at eight-thirty or nine, and I don’t come back home until one or two in the morning.
Catherine: Rashi, if you could change something, about either the henna itself or the dynamic of working, what would that be?
Rashi: I think about henna…I wish it would stain a little bit quicker I wish I could get nice deep, dark stains, without keeping it on for hours because I think people get frustrated. I mean if someone really appreciates it they will keep it on forever, but if someone wants it really quick so they can use their hand, its very hard to convince them to keep it on for a very long time. Then if they don’t get a nice stain, they come back and complain about the quality of your henna or your work. So I wish I could change that, for one.
About the dynamic of work…I think it’s about going into peoples houses all the time and you don’t always get treated very nicely especially Indian families, for some reason. And again I think that stems from what you expect the henna artist to be, you know… someone from the low income groups, so they don’t have the same sense respect as for someone who is highly educated, and working in an office or a bank…you know…one of the white-collar jobs.
Catherine: Let me ask you this because this has happened to me. I’ll be in a night of henna…a room full of Indian women, working as fast as I can and it’s clear they are treating me very, very rudely and I am being treated as if I am a very lower class person. When I step out of that room they speak to me as an American and as an equal, but when I’m in a room with a cone in my hand this other behavior falls into process.
Neeta: I think it’s the attitude…I see it definitely improving because now those kinds of experiences are becoming less and less. There’s more education. I think before it was uneducated people who come to this country of the educated people who come to this country…that’s the attitude when they go to India also where, here, they clean like the toilets in a hospital, when they go back to India they feel like they are the kings of the world, and Indian people treat them, as though they come from the U.S., So I guess that’s the attitude that when you employ someone to do something you ‘own’ them.
Catherine: Yes, that is a very interesting point.
Neeta: It is changing, where if I had three or four of those experiences a year where now it’s coming down to one or two so I really feel that now with education, and once the bride starts talking to me and she knows I am educated and they appreciate what I do. I really find that.
Catherine: OK, one last question, and what do you think you hope to have change in your henna in the next two years? What changes do you want to accomplish?
Neeta: I can pretty much copy any style but what is stuck in my head is traditional I can do from the top of my head, and Arabic now, I am practicing, and maybe do some pieces here and there without having to look at the book. I really hope to learn more styles.
Catherine: To extend your range.
Neeta: Yes…if the design is there I can do it, if I have to do it without looking at it. That is something I would like to do.
Rashi: That actually is the same for me it’s just a one-track thing to actually, if to think on my own, it takes me time, I can do it on a piece of paper but if I have to do it straight with a cone it would probably take me a while. I want to get better with my speed and my designs.
Catherine: what do you think henna will be like ten years form now? Neeta? Its changed so much in the last ten years…the change is huge. What changes do u think might happen
In the next ten years?
Neeta: I think it will be even more popular because when I see people at festivals, they got henna somewhere at sometime, I see more people knowing about it and wanting to get it done again, as opposed to a few years ago when people did not know about it. Now it is like customers, have a friend and they are doing our job of trying to explain everything so the awareness is much more and they are liking that it is not permanent but it’s beautiful so I think as more and more people know about it, it will be more popular.
Catherine: So you see it dispersing into American culture and becoming more of mainstream.
Catherine: Rashi, what do you think? It has come so far in five years…ten years where do you see it going in ten years?
Rashi: I think I see it really changing its style because so far we follow different sets, like typical designs more or less you experiment with them, I think it can really get, like making entire fine art painting on people’s back…you know…things like that…just a completely different way. Most of the henna designs use the paisleys, triangles, dots and designs…all those symbols, and I see a huge change in the things we’re going to be using as patterns.
Catherine: So an expansion of repertoire, again.
Catherine: Thank you very much, Neeta and Rashi. We will transcribe this and thank you for your permission, and for doing this.