Indian body painting catching on in America


The ancients of India knew a thing or two about body ornament. No dark and aggressive tattoos for them, thank you. Traditional Indian enhancement is based on pretty and voluptuous painted swirls on hands and feet, and today's trendies are jumping on the idea.

Mehndi, as the 5,000-year-old art of body painting is called, is gaining adherents from Hollywood to Parkville. Demi Moore, Mira Sorvino, Naomi Campbell, the artist formerly known as Prince and his consort Mayte have appeared at star galas with henna-painted body parts. At Usha Gupta's salon on Harford Road, the clientele is not as flashy, but enthusiastic.

Gupta, who was trained in the refinements of this ancient beauty service in India, has been a practitioner for 20 years. She has always had regular Indian clients, but recently the young and hip have started booking appointments for body paint.

''In India, mehndi is worn for celebrations and auspicious occasions such as weddings,'' says Gupta, ''but here the young people do it for fun.''

On a recent morning at the salon, a gaggle of young women were waiting their turn to be painted. The painting medium is a henna paste that is squeezed onto the skin with an applicator that looks like a small pastry tube. The dark squiggles and scrolls are left on the skin to allow the design to set, usually overnight. When the dried paste is flaked away, it leaves a stained skin pattern of red tints that can range from orange to deep red.

The result looks like tattooing, but the experience is painless and pleasant and the effects temporary.

Danielle Finnerman, a sophomore at the Maryland Institute, was there for a floral garland to accent her navel - a special effect for a weekend at the ocean. ''I know a lot of people who are getting tattoos, but I think they'll regret it 15 years from now. I think about the work world years ahead, and with tattoos there is only so much slack I could expect, even as an artist,'' she says.

Designs can be original or chosen from a book of ancient patterns. Young people seem to have an affinity for the old designs, says Gupta, but they are wearing them in untraditional ways. She has painted stomachs, backs, circlets around the neck, arm or ankle and even full scalp designs on shaved heads.

That's where the Western way with mehndi differs from its origins. Today's fashionables are after a look to flaunt; the Eastern way is based on ceremony and intimacy.

Henna paint is an herbal compound and there are no known reactions. Application can take as little as minutes for a small anklet pattern or up to hours for the full works on palms and feet.

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