The henna tradition goes on
How wedding henna connected a Toronto bride to her roots
BY: JESSICA LAM
Manpreet Tathgar’s wedding day was on Sept. 21, 2018.
Two days earlier, around 30 of her female friends and relatives came together for a “‘henna night’,” where everyone had the chance to customize their own henna tattoos drawn on them for the weddings.
They could choose whatever henna they wanted, but the design would not be as elaborate as Tathgar’s. As the bride, she gets the darkest and most intricate design.
Getting henna done for one’s wedding day has always been part of South Asian culture, Tathgar says. So much so that, while it’s not mandatory, it’s rare to find a bride who identifies as South Asian and does not get henna ahead of her big day.
Tathgar, who lives in Brampton, likes embracing traditions from her culture, so getting henna for her wedding was always in the plan.
“Usually, it’s not until the bride has the henna on that she really feels like the bride,” Tathgar said. “It’s a staple piece. It kind of puts everything together.”
For her wedding, Tathgar had henna tattoos done on both of her hands and her feet. It took about three hours.
Nusrat Malik, a Toronto-based henna artist with her own business, Hennas by Nusrat, came in to do the henna. Tathgar found Malik over Instagram, where she saw pictures of Malik’s work on other brides. She then e-mailed Malik, asking her to create her wedding henna tattoo.
Malik lives in Vaughan. She creates her own natural henna paste at her home, and travels to clients’ houses and other events to do her work.
Henna paste is usually made from powder that is from South Asia. Artists then add oils, lemon juice, and sugar to make the paste. It is then put into henna cones, which are then used as a tool to draw hennas onto the skin.
After applying, the paste should not be touched for at least half an hour and the paste should be left to dry on the skin for about a day before it can be scraped off. The result should leave a nice stain design on the skin that will last for days.
Depending on the particular culture, hennas go by different names. For example, in Indian culture, the name for henna is menhdi. But they are ultimately the same thing.
Any forms of henna are an important part of the South Asian culture. Luckily, there are a nice variety of henna artists in Toronto, ensuring that Canadians of various South Asian backgrounds are able to connect back to their roots.
“It's not until the bride has the henna on that she really feels like the bride.”
Sonia Sumaira, from Scarborough, is another Toronto-based henna artist with her own business, Sonia’s Henna Art, who designs henna for brides.
According to Sumaira, hennas have different significant meanings based on the lines of the henna and how dark they are. Even the colour of the paste has specific meanings. For wedding hennas, the darker the paste, the stronger the love between the bride and groom. In Canada, the paste is organic- nothing artificial can be added to it.
Both artists, Malik and Sumaira, know this and eagerly embrace the way it is done here because it is the way that desi women can connect back to their culture.
Dylan Clark is a professor at University of Toronto, who specializes in Contemporary Asian Studies as part of The Asian Institute in the Munk School of Global Affairs. On the subject of the importance of connecting back to one’s roots, he said, “Performances of cultural authenticity are always problematic, given that the very idea of an authentic culture to perform is somewhat suspect.”
Clark cites examples of Canadians who could engage in cultural practices for various reasons, whether to better understand their family or maybe to follow in their footsteps.
“In general, it’s hard- but by no means wrong- to take cultural practices out of context,” Clark said. “Generally speaking meanings and frameworks change when cultural practices move across time, space, and politics.”
For Malik, being able to help brides like Tathgar connect back to their roots has allowed for her to connect to her own as well.
When Malik got married in Canada 13 years ago, she wasn’t able to find a henna artist that could draw her wedding henna because Toronto wasn’t as diverse as it is now. There weren’t as many henna artists. She ended up doing it herself- but only on her left arm, since she was right-handed. Now, she is happy to be able to give other brides the wedding henna they want.
“It’s an awesome feeling where brides can get something related to their culture,” Malik says. “And it’s as beautiful and nice as they could get back home.”