Jamilah Zebarth works on henna. Al Larriva-Latt Photos.
“Check out my hair!” an elementary-school-age girl shouted.
She turned her head around to reveal the back of her tangled blonde hair, which was now streaked with colorful powder. Minutes earlier, the siblings Zoë and Lachlan Sheehan-Samuel had helped her color her hair green and purple–her two favorite colors.
Now the girl sat in front of the henna artist Jamilah Zebart and requested no less than a dragon, a tree, and a crescent moon design for her right hand.
Zebarth, in a tie dye jilbab with a matching plum-colored niqab, was unfazed by the complexity of the request.
Last Wednesday afternoon, “Celebrating Holi” drew just over 20 adults, teenagers, and kids to the Mitchell Library in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. Zebarth, who has been practicing henna professionally for the past 13 years, delivered a brief presentation on the origins, history, and uses of henna, followed by an outdoor activity in which attendees tossed colored powder in celebration of Holi.
Holi is the Hindu springtime festival of colors. While it fell on March 18 this year, celebrations unfolded as recently as last week.
Top: Toni Bennett sits for a henna design. Bottom: Zoë Sheehan-Samuel, Lachlan Sheehan-Samuel, and Lissette.
The event was organized by the Mitchell Library Children’s Librarian Soma Mitra, who was unable to attend. Haley Grunloh, technical assistant at the Mitchell Library, happily filled in for her colleague.
It was an opportunity for the attendees—the majority of whom were library regulars—to learn about Indian culture and to let loose at the end of a long winter spent indoors.
This is the second Holi event Mitchell has hosted. The first, which Grunloh described as “wildly successful,” took place in 2019 before the onset of Covid-19 and featured dancing by Yale Bhangra. This year, Mitra added henna to the event, Grunloh said.
As she spoke, Grunloh’s library outfit—a long patterned skirt, a thick cardigan, and black combat boots—all became covered in a dusting of vivid color. Around her, children wove in and out of the patio tables, chasing each other with handfuls of powder.
Fifteen years ago, East Hartford-based artist Zebarth began learning henna after converting to Islam. She loved her tattoos—a total of seven covered her body—but was now aware that tattoos were against her religious teaching. Practicing the temporary tattoo of henna was a way to keep body art in her life. She designs henna in a variety of styles, including Islamic, Moroccan, Indian, and modern, which is her catch-all term for designs of contemporary objects like cupcakes or pizza.
She taught herself through YouTube, learning through trial and error. Her background in photography and design certainly helped, Zebarth said. But she emphasizes that anyone can do henna—it just takes practice.
“It’s just a lot of repetitive practice, drills, drawing shapes and things, and then it just becomes muscle memory,” she said. “It’s kind of like when you learn to write as a child and you’re really forming out each letter, but now you don’t even think about it, you just write.”
Zebarth was in the midst of designing henna on an au pair named Lisseth, who extended her right hand for the artist . Between sentences, Zebarth squeezed the deep brown henna paste through a plastic applicator cone. Every so often, she dabbed the opening of the cone with a cotton cloth, preventing the opening from clogging with excess paste. Her movements were quick, confident, elegant.
The result was a radiant flower, adorned with triangular and oval petals, which bloomed outward in concentric loops. Dense collections of parallel lines crept up her five fingers, accented by branches tipped with tear-drops
Top: The designs continue. Bottom: Lissette, Genie, and Jennifer.
Zebarth organizes an annual henna conference called The Henna Society, which most recently drew around 80 people from all over the world to the Hartford area. Attendees of a wide range of skill levels take classes with professional henna artists, sharing their skills with one another. The conference is in its fifth year.
For the first half of the event, Zebarth shared some of this knowledge with the attendees, who sat in the programming room on wooden chairs and the plush circular “storytime” rug. With the overhead lights dimmed, Zebarth worked her way through her PowerPoint slides, which featured pictures of her henna designs as examples.
Zebarth helped demystify the origins of henna paste. The paste is all-natural, made from the leaves of the henna plant. It should never be mixed with toxic chemicals. A disturbing number of commercially available henna pastes contain the toxic chemical paraphenylenediamine (PPD), which can cause permanent chemical burns, she said.
Another slide detailed the medicinal uses of henna: it can kill lice, cool body temperatures, and prevent UV rays from damaging skin.
Mom Stephanie Sheehan poses with kids Zoë, Lachlan, and Justine.
The Sheehan-Samuel family was among the attendees who benefitted from the cultural exchange this past Wednesday. As homeschoolers, the three kids were already reading about Holi and Indian culture as part of their curriculum. The event was an opportunity to experience some of that culture first-hand.
“I had a couple of books about Holi and they did a very in-depth study on India before so it was kinda neat to be able to come and try it out,” Stephanie Sheehan said. “We certainly didn’t have the different-colored powders at home to do it.”.
The event also brought out the elementary schooler Genevieve “Genie,” who came with a whole crew of caregivers in tow--her au pair Lisseth, mother Jennifer, and grandmother. The four are regulars at the Ives Library, but made the journey across town to Mitchell especially for the event after Lisseth saw it listed on a library calendar.
Dad Andrew Gottlieb-Cohen with daughter Liora Gottlieb-Cohen, Mom Kazusa Yamashita with daughter Mari Hartzheim.
The two one-and-a-half-year-olds Liora Gottlieb-Cohen and Mari Hartzheim were having fun too. Their respective parents, Andrew Gottlieb-Cohen and Kazusa Yamashita—who became friends through the weekly Tuesday storytimes at Mitchell—tossed fistfuls of powder onto the toddlers as they tottered about the concrete patio, testing out their legs under the spring sun.
By the end, the toddlers were covered in powder from head to toe. The front of Liora’s tiny fleece—an hour ago the color of off-white--was now a swirl of yellow, green, and orange. An explosion of purple ran down the front of Mari’s toddler-sized puffer jacket. And a little smile spread across Mari’s face.
“I think they love it,” Yamashita said, speaking for the two one-and-a-half-year-olds. “They can be as messy as they want, which is not always the case at home.”