Reinventing mehndi for body art
Ratan Patel 


Henna art centres are promoting the use of mehndi as body adornment. 
The current craze for body painting among the urban youth has suddenly revived interest in mehndi — the natural and pain-free art of decorating the hands and feet with henna on ceremonial occasions. Today, it has taken the place of tattoos and the many harmful chemical applications for colouring the skin.

Consequently, mehndi is no longer applied only on the hands and feet. Nor is it restricted to weddings and festivals. Professional henna artists are offering designs for different parts of the body and for all occasion. Besides, readymade henna stickers and pattern blocks are available at every street corner.

This resurgence of interest in what is patently a time-honoured custom in most Indian homes is often attributed to Hollywood celebrities like Demi Moore and Madonna. To them, it is said, goes the credit of making mehndi a fashion statement in the West.

As Preeti Sinha, a henna artist puts it: “Like many things traditionally Indian, mehndi art is being re-imported only after the West had approved it. Young women are increasingly taking to it because it is fashionable overseas, little realising that our mothers and grandmothers loved it in their time.”

“I couldn’t care if mehndi is making a fashion statement now,” comments Ira Gujral, a well-known choreographer. “All I know is that is has always been part of my culture and tradition. I will indulge in it whenever it suits me, regardless of the occasion.”

What, however, escapes that people is that mehndi is not Indian in origin, but draws upon a tradition that was adopted them north Africa. Almost 5000 years ago, the Egyptians discovered that paste from the henna plant had preservative properties and hence, was applied to the hands and toes of dead Pharaohs as part of the mummification ritual.

In Arabia, henna enjoyed religious sanction and even today, Muslims believe that its application is sunnah (a meritorious act). This explains why conservative Muslim women wear mehndi on their hands, feet and hair right through the year.

Mehndi reached India with the Arab invaders and became popular in northern states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat. But then, its use was purely utilitarian as the paste is supposed to keep the hands and feet cool. Only later, women began experimenting with different patterns and an art was born.

“You will find African, Arabic and Middle Eastern influences in mehndi patterns,” Sinha points out. “While in countries like Morocco and Egypt, mehndi is applied in a geometric fashion, the Arabs prefer bold floral motifs, leaving bare space in the centre of the palm.”

Adds Revati Khanna, another henna artist: “Arabs like black mehndi, which is why they heat the paste before applying, to darken the colour. The impression is, however, not jet black, but rather brownish-black, unlike the Indian variety, which is reddish brown.”

Indian mehndi styles are also distinctive for their intricate filigree-like work, which can completely cover the hands and wrists, often going right up to the elbow. On the legs it adorns the feet, the ankles and sometimes reaches up to the knees.

“There are many variations to traditional designs that have come up over the years,” Khanna points out. “Today, we have Rajasthani, designer, western and classical mehndi patterns... These may look the same to a lay person, but a discerning eye can spot the difference between them.”

“They look the same because they are the intricate,” explains Sinha. “Traditional patterns use a lot of floral and avian motifs, whereas modern designs combine geometric patterns and are usually abstract. The choice of flowers and birds is also a way to differentiate between styles.”

Cones are convenient tools for creating new patterns, just as paper stencils are available for instant application. Ready-made henna blocks, which can be pressed on any part of the body, are also major time savers for those in a hurry.

Henna art centres and parlours are also offering specially developed shades, ranging from bright red to deep brown, for appropriate highlights and outlining of patterns. Some are even experimenting with silver and gold powders for added effect. But then, these are known to last only till the first wash! MF 



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