Is Western embrace of henna tattoos cultural appropriation?

Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual Mosaic Journalism Workshop for Bay Area high school students, a two-week intensive course in journalism. Students in the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

Growing up in this country, Foram Mehta was bullied when she got henna designs, or mehndi, painted on her hands at Indian-American community celebrations.

“Henna was not a thing people understood, so people found it weird, especially kids,” said Mehta, a content creator who grew up in Texas and until recently lived in San Francisco. “A handful of years later, celebrities are wearing mehndi.”

The Bay Area, Mehta’s second home, is home to a vibrant South Asian community. Since 2010, the population of people of Indian descent in San Francisco has doubled, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As the South Asian community grows, elements of its culture like mehndi and yoga have become trendy, resulting in debates over what showing respect for a culture looks like, versus just taking advantage of it.

For Foram Mehta, some outside South Asian culture are profiting from its art forms without respecting the years of history these traditions are rooted in — a practice some call cultural appropriation. She believes that the Bay Area’s prosperity has enabled the rise of such appropriation here.

“The Bay Area is full of wealth and people who are interested in alternative lifestyles,” she said. “So in this area, there are people who have the ability to change their lifestyles, which enables more cultural appropriation.”

Santa Clara-based mehndi artist Mansi Mehta, however, appreciates the increased interest in mehndi and aspires to bring light to her culture through her work. She has been practicing mehndi for 18 years, starting in India during fifth grade.

“A lot of American clients might not know henna’s history, but I appreciate that they are respectful of the art,” Mansi Mehta said. “As long as we remain respectful and understand certain boundaries, that is the key.”

Mohana Narayan, the director of a San Jose studio for bharatanatyamor Indian classical dance, also believes that mehndi should be open to all people.

“Why would we think somebody else’s usage would be taking over our culture?” Narayan said. “I tend to be more on the open side.”
Foram Mehta sees cultural appropriation of South Asian culture as going beyond mehndi, into yoga. According to Statista, a market research firm, the yoga industry made $11.6 billion in the United States in 2020.

“Almost every yoga teacher says namaste without knowledge of what it means and that is because they learned from yoga institutes founded by people who appropriated the practice,” Foram Mehta said. “If you are going to become a yoga teacher, you need to learn it properly.”

Regardless of their views on cultural appropriation, all three women agree on one thing: It’s important to not detach from one’s culture but rather to develop a stronger connection with it.

“Our culture is for us,” Foram Mehta said. “It is important for us to live our lives and continue practicing what we know. It is important for us to have community and keep our culture alive.”

Through mehndi, Mansi Mehta has found a way to embrace the sense of togetherness that has been valued in her culture for centuries.

“Henna has been in South Asian culture for centuries,” Mansi Mehta said. “Togetherness has been there in our culture since the beginning, so that is why we are so connected to henna.”

Narayan switched from a career in technology to teaching Indian classical dance, in part “to allow for our own culture to thrive through art,” she said.

Rising Santa Clara High School junior Anika Dontu is a bharatanatyam dancer who grew up in the Bay Area. She believes her upbringing her with dance in the area allowed her to become more aware of her identity her along with that of others.

“I have lived in the Bay for all my life, so I am lucky to be in such a diverse area,” Dontu said. “It made me more aware of who I am and proud while more knowledgeable about all different cultures in the world.”

Foram Mehta urges the South Asian community and beyond to take a closer look at what differentiates cultural appreciation and appropriation.

“When people approach cultures with humility, you are on track to appreciate cultures instead of appropriate them,” Foram Mehta said.

Khadeejah Khan is a rising junior at Santa Clara High School.

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