Grad Student Snapshot: Vaishnavi Viswanathan

3:41:00 PM



Vaishnavi Viswanathan is an artist with a thing for computers.

Mehndi (pronounced Meh-hen-di), also known as henna, is Vaishnavi’s artform. “My total passion is drawing mehndi designs. That’s what makes me so happy,” says the CU Boulder computer science master’s student.

“If I’m worried or I’m totally depressed, I just take a cone and draw mehndi designs. I just totally forget about all my worries and concentrate on my design.”

I spent a large portion of our time together admiring (oogling, really) pictures of her intricate mehndi designs. 

Though these ornate designs look labor intensive, she can bust one out in just 15 minutes.

                          
 The design on the left is an Indian design, dense and intricate. The one on the right is Arabic, more dispersed and open. Her brother is encouraging her to do more Arabic designs, so that she can get more practice in this style.

It’s quite common for women to adorn their forearms with these intricate designs in Vaishnavi’s native India. Vaishnavi went to elementary school in Ras al-Khaimah, in the United Arab Emirates. At school, all of the girls wore mehndi designs all the time.

When she came back to India for summer vacation, she noticed a mehndi plant in her grandmother’s garden, growing among the coconut, banana and guava trees.  

“Mehndi is an actual plant? I didn’t know that!” I exclaimed upon learning this. Vaishnavi laughed in response, and we google-imaged it.

“It really smells good. You can dry these leaves off, and make it into a powder, then mix it with different kinds of oils,” she says.

You add lemon, eucalyptus, sugar, in addition to some water, and it turns into a kind of paste. It smells citrus-y, mixed with the distinct herbal smell of the mehndi plant. Then, the paste is placed into a cone (a triangular tube—the kind you might use for frosting, pictured above) in order to apply the paste onto the body.

Her dad got her her first cone. Once she had a cone, she started making her own paste from her grandmother’s tree, and began drawing on everyone’s hands, whoever she could she could get to sit for her. “Nobody used to tell me no. Everybody likes henna, even if the designs are horrible,” she says. “Then I practiced on my own hand, and on paper.”

Once the paste is applied, it sits for a little bit before it dries, after which you remove it. You’re not supposed to use water, but Vaishnavi does anyway. She likes to leave the paste on for just ten minutes, then wash it off so that it doesn’t last that long. That way, she can do it over again.

The mehndi smell remains, even after a few days. When the design begins to fade, the smell fades as well.

Vaishnavi on the CU-Boulder campus
Vaishnavi moved to the U.S. just last year to study computer science. She’s into user interface design, android and iOS mobile application development, and web security.

Mostly, she wanted exposure to an international system, and says degrees from the United States are valued.

She likes the university system here because you can take any subject from any department. She enjoys taking classes from different departments. For someone who has eclectic interests, I can see that it suits her. 

When asked where she sees herself in five years, she laughed and said “I don’t know, I have no idea. I just want to keep studying, that’s all. Learn new things.”

But, after her masters, she wants to get into research.

She likes biology and cancer research, and wants to apply her background in computer science in this field. Her particular interest in cancer came partially from her grandfather. He had cancer, and nobody found a medication for him. “I have seen him in the last stages, and he sort of lost himself,” she said.

So, she wants to be a part of a research team that does meaningful, health-related research. “There should be a purpose in life, right? It should not just be we lived and then we went off and died,” she says.

Couldn’t agree with you more, girl.

By Aggie Mika

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