Book review: The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

I’m hovering in a booth at a street festival in Calgary. The booth is cool, shaded by the white fabric walls and covering. This is a ‘lilac festival,’ but lilac blooms don’t coincide with the festival date anymore. Street festivals aren’t common in a town based on holing up in suburban bonus rooms. The street is lined on either side with the booths of artisans, musicians, local grocers and regular old corporations ready to sign you up for a phone contract. Even still, I feel the excitement of discovering something new and this temporary identity of a crowd.

“Do you want your hands painted?” 

The woman asks me this question without looking up from her work. She holds her client’s hand firmly, daubing dots on her skin. The client looks like me: Caucasian, in her thirties, and a bit frumpy. The client stares at the artist’s application of paint. I do the math and realize by the time my vacation is over, the henna will be pretty much faded. 

“Yes please,” I say, and look at the designs in a binder on the table. The designs are variations on dots and swirls. Picking a design from a binder reminds me of my first tattoo: a clip art rendition of a banana. I remember the thrill of picking it then, and feel it again now. I know henna isn’t permanent, but I’ve never marked a publicly visible part of my body before. 

It’s my turn. I sit and feel the delicious cooling and scrubbing of the paste she rubs on my hands and forearms. It smells of honey and something I can’t name. 

“Which one?” 

I point to the design in the binder, feeling shy about my choice. She begins, barely referencing the design. She knows the pattern. The paint feels cold on my skin, and goosebumps run up my arms. The way she holds my wrists and manipulates my hands reminds me of getting a manicure or a massage, but different. I have a sense that this act, this henna painting, is tied to ritual.

She finishes my hands and accepts my payment with a glance at my face. I thank her profusely, nodding dutifully at her instructions. I walk out of her booth like a surgeon with freshly scrubbed hands and arms, looking for a way out of the crush of bodies moving along the street. All of us move as one, desperate to absorb something real. We know we are starving for culture. 


For anyone who’s had a similar experience, reading The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi will open your eyes to the rich history, culture, and meaning of the artistry of henna. The designs, steeped in symbolism, are applied as talismans and prayers on the hands of women fighting for what they want for their life and their family. Through the making of henna paint, the securement of clients, and the application of henna, we learn about the artist, Lakshmi, and how much she’s overcome and what she wants to achieve. 

This story delves into the craft of henna in great detail. You will finish this book with a deeper understanding of the meaning of the designs and what it means to be a woman in India in the 20th century. 

But more importantly, I appreciated learning about another culture and way of life in such an accessible way. The characters explain without appearing out of place in doing so, and the book contains a glossary of terms. 

Reading this book felt like joining a community of women who not only held each others’ hands and marked them with ritual and meaning, but recognized themselves in each other. Next time I get henna on my hands, I will pick my design with more intention. 

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