Bridgette Bartlett is a traveler, accomplished henna artist, and yogi. She has been travelling to India on and off for the past five years. She spoke to us about the value of slow travel, travelling with purpose, and how she’s developed her craft.
How did you first start traveling to India?
My first trip to India was kind of impulsive. A couple people had said that I would love it. At the time, I was really interested in photography, and it seemed like a good place to go. I was 18 and had some money from a summer job, so I booked my ticket and headed to India for a month — that was March, 2012. I ended up going back to India later that year for six months.
That trip was more about photography. I think that first month was enough to get a feel, but it wasn’t too much time. Luckily, I ended up totally loving it. I spent two thirds of my time in Udaipur, then I went and spent a week in Diu, a territory in Gujrat. It was beachy, but not touristy. Rather than seeing landmarks, I was more interested in staying in one place to really understand life there. India can be overwhelming; getting to know a place takes time. A lot of people who travel through Indian cities too quickly don’t enjoy the country because it’s so exhausting. In India, you need time adjust to the noise, food, smells, and people in order to feel relaxed. Staying put allows you to see the magic of the place.
How did you spend your time that first time around?
I was photographing, enjoying the city and food, and doing some henna. I was into henna already, but had never been formally taught. Meeting people who let me do their henna was really exciting, and a great way to get acquainted with locals. Udaipur is really romantic, it’s a mesmerizing place that’s hard not to fall in love with.
Since that first trip, I’ve returned to India every winter. My travel has evolved a lot, and I’m glad I’ve allowed myself the time to go slowly because I’ve been able to experience a lot of places for extensive periods of time. India is so big, when you go slow you can appreciate the subtle differences in culture and food from one state to the next. Udaipur was my original base in Rajasthan. It’s just my favorite! I’ve also spent a lot of time in Rishikesh, Gujrat, Karela, Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune. Mysore is my new base because of my yoga practice. This is my sixth trip to India, and there are still so many places I want to visit.
How has the intent of your travel changed?
A lot of the things I do at home in the USA are connected to what I do in India, so that has rearranged the priorities of my travel here. I barely photograph now, I’m more focused on my asana practice when I’m here.
I think it’s always been easy for me to live in India … something about it just works for me. Some things that many travelers are really bothered by just don’t get to me. I don’t mind the noise, I like busy places and spicey food — I don’t ever get sick of Indian food!
Everyone should see India. Most people who do come here find something they love, and then have to come back and see more. People will often travel the north or south of India separately because there’s so much to take in. After experiencing one, it’s nice to come back to see the other.
You spoke of the importance of making local friends, and how your henna work and asana brings you into close contact with people. Have you learned any local languages?
I’ve learned a little — in the north I learned a bit of Hindi. But in Mysore they speak Kanada. Up north, Hindi is widely spoken and each state has a local language. A lot of those languages have some similarities to Hindi, so people will speak both. But down south, it depends where you are. Mysore and Bangalore are quite cosmopolitan, some people know Hindi because of living in other parts of the county for work. In the more rural parts of southern India, people don’t know it, or don’t want to speak it because it’s a northern language. In those places, it’s easier to get by with English, or more often, body language. Indians are very expressive when they speak, so you can communicate well without speaking the same language.
Where and how did you start studying henna?
I started playing around with henna at home before I went to India. One of my best friends and I bought a henna kit together and were like, “This will be fun!” I was totally taken with it right off the bat. When I traveled to India, people I met made themselves really available and I was given a lot of opportunities to practice. I was doing it for fun without any instruction. After returning home from that trip, I just kept practicing, I never put it down. There are a few henna conferences in the United States, so I went to one of those, and it was inspiring to be with other artists who were well established, see them work, and ask questions.
Going to India after that experience, I was more interested in the process, and the technical aspects, such as the chemistry of the plant and how to make organic henna. That’s not as important to Indians I’ve met. What you can easily get in the Indian markets has lots of chemicals in it, it’s really toxic! It was really frustrating. Since then, I’ve brought my own henna powder and mixed it fresh. Locals are always intrigued, saying “Wow! We used to do it that way, now we buy our cones in the market.” There are some incredible artists in Delhi and Mumbai who do mix their own henna, but they can be hard to come by.
What have you learned about the Indian henna industry?
An interesting thing is that, up north, there are amazing street henna artists. It’s where I’ve seen the most henna artistry out and about. And all the artists are male! They sit on the side of the road and people come to them and get their henna done. These guys just sit there, waiting for clients. For a lot of these street artists, the henna is less about art and more about making money. I’ve chatted with them and watched them work. It’s interesting because most of the time I (and Indian women) don’t hang out with random men, but they work with women all day so they are very polite and courteous. A lot of these guys say henna is their family business, and they do great work. Most female artists in India work in a beauty parlor or make house calls.
When you ask a mehndi wallah (Hindi way of saying male henna artist) about their designs , they usually reply, “[the women] show me a picture, I do the design, they pay me.” It’s just like any other job. It’s funny, because when I tell most Indian people I’m a henna artist, they say “why?!” It’s not a very well respected job in India. In most Western countries, people think of henna as a fine art — it’s treated very differently.
How do your designs differ from designs done by Indian artists?
For most Indians, more is always more! “Just cover me up to my elbows, full design.” I like negative space! Many Indians reply “no, cover it.” That attitude is more prevalent up north.
Henna is fun, even when it’s not done very well. I can’t tell you how many people back home tell me they got henna in India and then show me pictures of designs and it’s … bad.
When I’m living in Mysore, a lot of my clients are other international yoga students. When I do henna for them, I often find they’ve been given a lot of misinformation about what henna is and how it works.
At the same time, there’s a lot of beautiful henna traditions around the world. I love to hear about traditions and rituals! It’s important to know about, but I’m often aware that there’s misinformation about how to properly care for henna. It’s a difficult line to walk.
How do you relate and engage with potential clients?
It’s changed a lot now that I’m more established in the online henna world. Before, I was so eager to practice, meet people, and get my name out there. I would do henna for fun and often for free. Now, people usually find me on Instagram. Most people who end up hiring me are really appreciative of the work, and like my designs because they are highly stylized and unique. They know I’m mixing the henna fresh for them, and they like that. There are tons of henna artists out there but only a handful of really professional artists.
Do you find your designs changing when you are working in India versus in the United States?
During my busy season in the U.S., I am doing a lot of festivals and markets to earn money. I tend to work pretty quickly and most of the designs requested are quite small. Often at these kinds of events I will henna 40 or more people in a day so I run off repertoire. My bridal clients in the U.S. also often want a smaller amount of henna coverage for their wedding.
When I’m in India, I take the time to creatively recharge. There are so many motifs and patterns everywhere and I get inspired by the architecture and textiles. I’ll do a lot of drawing and sometime I’ll call someone and ask them to sit for me because I’m inspired! I can slow down, think, be creative, and come up with new ideas. When I return home and have to make money, I work much faster and can pull from the practice and inspirations I acquired while traveling. When I work quickly, it’s still about producing nice designs, but I’m not composing as slowly as when I’m working on a model or bride. I’m lucky to earn my living as an artist and have the time to come back to India, it allows me to check in with what I love about doing henna.
How has your practice changed over the years?
The internet has changed henna so much. I work with more negative space than what you see in more traditional Indian designs. I appreciate the work, but it’s not my style. My inspiration right now comes more from the window gates here in Mysore that have all these bent patterns. I’ve been taking a lot of pictures and using that as inspiration.
Does being a woman and a henna artist help you integrate into the local Indian community?
Henna is definitely a great common ground in helping me relate to other locals. A lot of Indian women are more reserved and it’s been a great way to get invited into people’s homes to sit and talk to some amazing women I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise. It’s a great avenue into their lives. That’s been a cool thing, being here. They are so happy and grateful for the work. I do have a lot of clients who just love the art of henna. They are delighted, so that’s always fun. Sometimes with families, we’ll do a trade. They cook dinner and I’ll do their henna, which is always really fun!