Teaching the Youth a Solid Foundation in Art: Ronak, a Mehendi Artist

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“Her Mehendi classes, dedicated clientele, and creative designs have made her one of the most popular Mehendi artists in the RTP area.” 

If you just arrived from another country, how would you deal with new ways of doing things and still keep your native culture? Sharing what you know about arts and crafts and volunteering might just help prevent a feeling of isolation and loneliness.

Ronak is one of 57,400 Indians who have settled in the Triangle.  In the last 10 years there has been a 60% population increase of Indians int the state, mostly professionals in the tech industry.  From Gujarat, Ronak came to Morrisville to join her husband, a software engineer, when her daughter was 2 ½ years old.   Her daughter is now a teenager and she shares with Asian Focus her early experiences and how she found volunteer work fulfilling and used it as an opportunity for the growth of her artistic skills. Over Masala tea, she shared a bit of her Gujarati culture and her life in Morrisville. These are excerpts from our conversation.

Tell us something about your culture in India.

“Among the groups you can name, perhaps the largest is Hindu but there are also Muslims, Sikhs, Punjabis, Maharashtrian, Gujarati, Kanak, Tamil… I do not understand lots of them, but I speak Guajarati- our state language. The national language is Hindi and most people speak English. In spite of multiple religions, languages, regions Indian culture is rich and believe in वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् (Vande Mataram) which means the ‘World is one Family’. Many Hindus are vegetarians as we believe that in every living being, there is God.”

How did you deal with new ways of doing things in America, while still keeping your native culture?

My husband came to the U.S.A. first and After about year, we came here. Initially we felt lonely as we didn’t have any friends here. Since I liked arts & crafts since childhood, I started devoting most of my time towards painting, drawing etc. I also know graphics design using photo shop. I started volunteering in my community- designing brochures, cards, tiles, etc. At first, we lived near the South Point Mall. My child was going to pre-school and I didn’t like staying alone. I met more folks from the community where I was living and found they were really kind and friendly. I remember I was always at my child’s school volunteering. I also started volunteering at the temple here and helping some nonprofit organizations. Since then our Indian community has grown at very large extent. So far, I don’t miss my culture too much.

Have you been to the Dragon Boat Festival?

“No, I have not been to the Dragon Boat Festival but I have heard a lot about it.  Sure, it would be nice to have a booth and do Mehendi Henna during the day. It’s a body tattoo, but after a few days it goes away depending upon how one’s body interacts with the henna, a kind of paint. We mix a paste with water and apply it on the body, mostly hand, palm, feet, front /back, usually before weddings. Depending on the body temperature, colors come out light or dark. When a person is  excited, Mehendi might make the color dark. If your body is cool, the mehendi will be light in color.

How did you get started in Mehendi?

In India, I did Mehendi professionally. I had more chance to do it there because it’s a long-held practice for people of all ages.  In Morrisville, at first, I didn’t know many people, but now I have friends to do art for. When I started art and crafts at school, my teacher encouraged me. He was always taking pictures of my work for which I have won awards. I did not take my own pictures, because I did not have a camera. I did not go to art school but I did finish an accounting program. After getting married, I studied graphic arts and learned new ways to apply my art skills using the computer.

How did you meet your husband?

It’s interesting how I met my husband, but such circumstances are common in India. We had our yearly community gathering, and, he found me there and fell in love with me. Before this gathering, we regularly saw each other in temple but did not have any idea about relationship. We did not know each other personally until we went to the community gathering. Strictly no dating due to family discipline. Upon meeting him, I felt like I got confidence that he is good for my life and he understands me a lot. He saw me and I liked him.

In volunteering, I met new friends

After 3 years, we came here. My husband realized I liked arts & crafts. I also do graphics design, like photo shop. I volunteered in my community- designing brochures, cards, tiles, etc. At first, we lived near the South Point Mall. My child was going to school and I didn’t like to stay alone. I met more folks from the Indian community. I remember I was always at my child’s school volunteering. Since then, our  Indian community grew from about say, 60 % to about 75 %. People here do our traditional festivals like Diwali, Holi, Noratri, etc. I go to the temple. We don’t miss India so much because we practice our culture here. We have our own cultural ways, our stories.

We do potlucks and we make items associated with each festival. For example, for Diwali (festival of lights), we make sweets. Then we have our new year.

Symbols & Rituals

There are symbols that are important to me. For example, the chant, “OHMmmm”- for meditation and other spiritual things. OHM mm makes your body cool and good for meditation.

Swastik (ed. note- the Hindu Swastik should not be confused with the Nazi swastika. The Hindu version is several thousand years old and stands for brotherhood, peace, and prosperity)  is also a good symbolic entrance to the temple or house to protect us. We do that, as well as prayers in the morning. We also have the Kum Kum (applying colors to each other).                             

So, there are rituals. In our homes, we have images, pictures of our spiritual leaders. Every state in India has its own culture, food, practices, and rituals. We start with morning prayers… Every group has its own food, dresses, language- hundreds of them.

When we leave India, we bring with us our beliefs about life in general. Like Sudha (faith, trust, attaining spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism.) We believe that God will protect us every moment… Inside our souls is God. Our souls know everything even when nobody’s looking. It’s about my main belief in God.

What does that mean? Some people are good or bad but God, soul, is pure. I am believing that I cannot hurt anybody…I cannot hurt or cheat them because God is in them.

There are many rituals. In our homes, we have images, pictures of our spiritual leaders, gods, and goddesses. Every state in India has its own culture, food, practices, their own rituals. We start with morning prayers and take blessings from elders. Every group has its own food, dresses, language- hundreds of them. When we leave India, we bring with us our beliefs about life in general.

              

Tell us how you, as a Hindu, see God?

We believe that God will protect us every moment… God resides Inside our soul itself. Our souls know everything even when nobody is looking. It’s about my main belief in God.

God is inside every living being. Our soul is pure and has infinite strength. We don’t realize it because our soul is covered with many layers of impurities like anger, greed, lust, ego, materialistic attachment etc. If we get rid of these layers, we can experience power of God.

What does that mean? Some people are good or bad but God, soul, is always pure. So, we should pray to their soul to free them from their bad habits. I believe that I should not hurt or cheat anybody because God is in them and everything is happening with me is nothing but return of my past Karma. It’s about understanding principle of Karma.

 

What is important to you?

There is Dharma– mostly duty, our responsibility. Women are expected to handle our household, our family. Karma is what we are doing. Giving something to someone, whatever it is, will come back to you. Not today or tomorrow but sometime. Karma: If you do good then you will get good, so don’t hurt anyone.

My soul, when I can’t breathe anymore goes to another body; will go up and find another body.  We also believe in “moksha.” The last stage of life. If you balance good & bad then its zero. Everybody goes to different places- Karma means they come back in a different form, maybe animal (living) form if they are not good.

 

What made us stay here? My husband likes his work here, my child likes her school; education, all the facilities. My community gives me the opportunity to develop my artistic skills. They see my skill.  I do art and teach. I try to give my students a solid foundation. In the house, I do custom painting. My favorite is glass painting. It’s easy to work with.  You may use water based or oil based paint with it. My favorite subject is the peacock, our national bird.

The first time I said to myself, ‘This is who we are’ is when I went to the temple and saw a celebration. Other times include when I do volunteer work in the temple or when I use my graphic skills. In some festivals we decorate our temple, change clothing, and prepare food. My favorite food? Roti (bread), and Shahi (royal) palak paneer. We are vegetarians. We go to Tower restaurant about twice a week at Morrisville Square.

When we go to the temple, we gather, cook and do things together. There is a real community here. There may be about a thousand who go to the temple here. At festivals, maybe about 3,000 around the area.  In September/October, we do native dances at night. Another holiday that we have is Holi. For Gujaratis, it means putting color on each other. There’s a story behind colors. Behind every festival, some story. Ramayana & Mahabharata are two of our most popular epics. Everybody knows the story associated with colors and the rituals.  

On Child Rearing

I am not too concerned about my daughter being a teenager. We regularly go to the temple and do our spiritual things. My child also knows what is good and bad. She tells me everything happening in school. She knows what is good for our culture and good for American culture. She is exposed to mixed culture. She can read and write in Gujarati. Also trying to learn Hindi.

Relation with Other Groups

With American people- I work at Michael’s where I meet more Americans. But with my art, I have more communication with Indians.  At Michael’s, I do arts & crafts for whatever festival or special events, whether it’s Father’s Day, Mother’s, Day, or any other special holidays. My manager now has more confidence in me. As time goes on, I get more confidence that my manager knows me better. With my skills, he gives me opportunity to teach. People now recognize that I learn easily….

5-10 years from now?  

I can see me in my studio, maybe also doing some tax work- accounting. That’s my dream. My own studio… I look forward to more challenging art work, more learning, making new things…”

Visit her and see her art 

 

Interviewer: Gregoria Smith, Asian Focus NC