Review: Henna *****

Spoken Word


Scottish Storytelling Centre, v30

19.30 (ends 19 August)

***** (5 stars)

This is the second wedding celebration I’ve been to this Fringe – so different and yet so similar: tears and smiles, happiness for the young couple tinged with sadness that a daughter and son are leaving their respective families to start a new life together, and a huge celebration with music and dancing

This time we are invited to be guests at a Sikh wedding by our hosts, uncle and nephew Peter and Gorg Chand, dressed in splendid gold-embroidered tunics. Bollywood-sounding music plays as they invite us to take our seats and join them and the family of the bride as she and her girlfriends have the traditional henna patterns applied to the palms of their hands: paint it on thickly, please – a bride doesn’t do any housework or chores until the decoration has completely gone.

The matchmaker considers himself the most important part of the wedding preparations – isn’t he the one responsible for “two become one”? One day, a matchmaker was on his way to the wedding, carrying a sack of fragrant rice. He lost his way and found himself face to face with a sleek and hungry leopard: but he and the leopard didn’t become one…and so the stories begin.

The matchmakers – ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ – invite us into the wedding house, easily identified by the streams of blue LED lights decorating it. Auntie knows that it’s the matchmaker’s wife who is the most important part of the wedding – she knows everything about everyone. She is sure to check whether you are still studying, or have finished and are thus another candidate for her services – and has to make sure that all the preparations are as they should be. The food is all prepared, the blankets in their transparent storage packs on one side, the piles of new pots and pans on the other – shall we go upstairs and join the bride-to-be? While the henna artist applies the traditional patterns which are handed down generation to generation, what better way to pass the time than telling stories?

In a mixture of English and Punjabi, Peter and Gorg weave together the story of the wedding and traditional tales which they’ve collected from their own family. Some of these they’ve heard in full, others they have re-imagined from fragments they’ve been told at different times. The storytelling is among the best I’ve ever heard – the wedding comes alive for us, we feel as if we really are present in the room while the henna is being applied, in the wedding in the gurdwara, and back home again at the wedding house. We are an integral part of all that is going on and very welcome guests. We even join in the dancing, having been taught simple Bollywood moves that are linked to the various parts of the wedding celebrations – paint on the henna, clear away the blankets, shake the bangles, take the photos, shout Hai hai hai and then do your own thing. It was an exhilarating way to end the evening, and we went singing out into the night.

An old Scottish proverb says The story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart. It’s an active two-way process into which we are drawn by the storytellers, and invited to contribute by our presence, our reactions, and our willingness to engage. Henna was a triumph of magnificent storytelling, a perfect illustration of the proverb. The run ended on Sunday: but I’ll definitely be looking out for these two master-storytellers next year!

Mary Woodward