The Face Behind the Artwork

One of my earliest childhood memories about India took place during a wedding that my family attended. Indian weddings tend to be exorbitant affairs, often lasting several days because of the lengthy ceremonies and a particularly Indian inability to arrive to any event less than an hour late. One of the lengthiest functions, especially for a child, is the Mendhi party during which the bride's hands, arms, and feet are covered in elaborate designs and the female guests are invited to watch and chat with her as she waits hours for the "temporary tattoo" to dry. Because the process is so time consuming, the other women are also given the opportunity to have Mendhi put on them so they will continue to have a reason to stay with the bride. I can remember watching hordes of Aunties and cousins I had never met before crowd around the bride, ogling at the delicate patterns snaking around her palm and up her body. Fascinated by their intrigue, I convinced my younger sister that she too should participate in this body marking ritual before I surrendered my own body. As her Mendhi began to dry, my sister suddenly realized what she had done to her smooth, spotless skin. However, after only ten minutes, vigorous scraping, and many tears, my sister emerged from the bathroom with her arms and hands stained a vibrant orange. From that moment on, I harbored an irrational fear of Mendhi and vowed never to put it. Somehow, I successfully avoided the substance for over a decade until last Saturday during our visit to an Anganwadi in rural Gujarat. Across India, the government has started an initiative to create Anganwadis in rural villages to serve as community centers, forums for female empowerment programs, and schools for primary education. Unfortunately, because of the remote locations of these Anganwadis, it is very hard for villagers to ensure that the government provides them with adequate infrastructure or delivers the grains that they promise the participants. I was absolutely disgusted when I saw a dark, feces covered shack half the size of our hotel bathroom that was supposed to serve as a daycare for over 40 children; my stomach lurched when I stepped into the fly infested space, and I immediately stepped out because the stale air burned my lungs. Thankfully, at least for this community, the SETCO foundation has entered into public private partnerships with this municipal government, so they have already created several drastically improved centers.

When we arrived at one of their Anganwadis, we were greeted by toddlers carrying small bouquets of flowers for each of us. Even though the majority of the children were only four years old and unable to comprehend what we were doing in their space, my heart still warmed when I just how more stimulating and comfortable this environment must be for them. However, the most special part of the visit was when we had the opportunity to talk to girls and young women ranging from the ages of twelve to nineteen who came to the Anganwadi every day for vocational training and empowerment courses. Immediately, it was evident that the girls were extremely shy around visitors, so the first half hour of our conversation centered on basic questions such as: "What is your favorite color?" or "Do you have any siblings?" From their body language and suppressed giggles, we could tell that they were accustomed to insular lifestyles, and, as they began to open up about their families we learned that many of their parents had pulled them out of school after seventh grade because it was immodest for them to remain in the public sphere. Only three of the girls remained in school, and only two of them had aspirations of going to the local, Gujarati medium college. Coming from the Winsor School, six years of all girls education, I've never been in a situation or state of mind where I felt completely stuck or like I couldn't achieve my own goals because of the expectations of my family or the norms of my community.

As I sat there reflecting on how differently my education had shaped me as an independent women, one of the girls tapped me on then shoulder and pointed to the shiny red tube of Mendhi she held in her right hand. Unable to articulate my childish fear in her native language, I reluctantly sat on the floor and stuck out my right hand, desperately trying to communicate my desire for the most minimal design. Slowly my palm grew dark with her delicate work, and before I knew it both of my hands were covered, doomed to a month of varying blends of brown, red, and orange pigmentation.

Every time I catch a glimpse of the Mendhi on my hands as they perform my everyday tasks, and I feel the urge to grimace or pick at the peeling peeling designs, I try and think about the girl sitting across from me who patiently worked on my hand. I remember the triumphant smile on her face as she finally set her tools down and looked at me, trying to asses my satisfaction, and I realize that this moment is like my six at Winsor. This opportunity to gift her brilliant artistry to a curious stranger has filled her with the confidence she could never find as a fifteen year old girl sitting and waiting at home until her future husband came to collect her and the dowry she had been saving for since birth. Mendhi does not need to be some foreign substance that I furtively seek to avoid. Instead, I can see it as passionate art and imagine the faces of artists across this country, throwing their souls into their creations as acts of perseverance and resilience.