Sidebar: Mixing and Applying Mendhi
Issue 108, September/October 2001
We drink espresso, eat sushi, listen to reggae, and wear batik. So it was only a matter of time before world culture came to cosmetics. Mehndi, the ancient Indian and African art of painting the body with henna, is fun, safe, and a more personal form of expression than a smear of blue eye shadow ever could be. It has reemerged from the mists of time, valued today for its natural qualities and spiritual dimension.
We humans have been decorating our bodies since ancient times. Celtic tribes tinted their skin blue, and American women in the 1920s rouged their knees. Mummies unearthed in ancient Egyptian tombs bear evidence of mehndi; after eons, henna still tints their skin and fingernails. As a cosmetic, henna has traveled from Africa to India following trade routes and adapting to local traditions and aesthetics. In today's world culture, mehndi is available to anyone.
Mehndi uses the coloring properties of henna, a bush-like herb that grows throughout Africa and the Middle East. The dried and ground leaves are mixed with dark brewed tea and a few drops of oil (jasmine, eucalyptus, clove, even olive or corn oil) to create a cool, moist paste. The paste is drawn in patterns on the skin and allowed to set. As it dries, the color seeps into the skin. In India, practiced artists apply the paste by squeezing it through their fingers, but it can also be applied with a foil or paper cornet, a plastic applicator bottle, a toothpick, or a knitting needle. As with decorating a cake with icing, a steady hand and a creative eye are all you need.
Since mehndi's color is limited to orange-brown (depending on your skin tone and the strength and freshness of your henna mixture), placement and pattern are the keys to self-expression. Western cosmetics offer a wide range of colors but are limited in their application to the face; mehndi, on the other hand, treats the body as a canvas, banding a wrist, draped like lace over the palm of a hand, tickling down the ankle and between the toes.
There are as many reasons to use cosmetics, from rouged knees to mehndi, as there are ways to use them. Some cultures decorate to celebrate a festive occasion, others to mark membership in a group or tribe. A sailor's tattoos will describe his travels, just as a teenager's may ally him with a favorite band. Even the decision to use cosmetics offers clues to our opinions on all sorts of issues, from women's rights to animal rights. The choice of decoration reflects the culture. Patterns and colors can call spirits or mark a rite of passage. Animal figures are talismans that endow the wearer with the animal's power and prowess. Words and images symbolize commitment to a person or cause. Repeated geometric patterns often symbolize eternity or the ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Indian patterns of blooming flowers and entwined vines are symbols of fertility and form an integral part of an Indian bride's preparation for marriage.
Lindsey Crowninshield was 27 when she discovered mehndi during a bicycle trip with friends through northern Africa. In Marrakesh a young student invited them home to meet his family. There Lindsey was adopted by the household's women, who served lunch and insisted on painting her hands with henna. Three hours later, her hands were covered from wrist to fingernails with an intricate pattern of swirls, lines, and dots that had been applied using a syringe without its needle.
"As it dried, it began to feel tight, but it wasn't unpleasant," says Lindsey. To protect the henna, her hands were swaddled in cotton. Naturally she couldn't ride her bike, so she was taken back to the campsite in a horse and carriage. "The driver was surprised to see a tourist with henna painting. Everyone who saw me asked if I was a bride."
Indian brides decorate themselves the way a Western bride would get a facial or have her nails done for the big day. A bride's hands, feet, and sometimes her thighs are decorated with mehndi designs that often entwine the groom's name, leading to a particularly sensuous game of hide-and-seek on the wedding night. The groom will also be painted with mehndi patterns that mirror the bride's, although they are not as elaborate.
Only a few Western brides have adopted mehndi as a wedding tradition, but many women use it as a fashion statement and a means of personal expression. Celebrities and models, from Madonna to Naomi Campbell, have been photographed wearing mehndi, and salons have opened in many American cities to offer mehndi painting. Stephanie Rudloe, of The Mehndi Project in New York City, recalls that the salon's first mehndi event drew so many people there was a line down the block: "We had everyone, from teenagers to chic upper East Side ladies."
As mehndi seeps into American culture, styles and patterns are changing. Rudloe recalls a woman who had a pair of wings painted on her back to celebrate her newfound freedom after a divorce. While more traditional applications cover the whole hand or foot, American women most often apply mehndi like jewelry, painting on armbands, bracelets, and necklaces to enhance and highlight body parts.
Having mehndi done is like getting a manicure, except that you choose patterns instead of colors. The artist holds your hand, applying the moist paste with a steady hand, building the design element by element. The paste goes on cool and moist, in an unappetizing gray-green color, and dries quickly. Once set, the pattern is glazed with lemon juice. As the mixture dries, it adheres to the skin. Depending on where it is applied (for example, the palms of your hands), you made need a ride home--and don't plan on doing the dishes that night.
The dried mehndi pattern can be left on for a few hours or overnight. The length of time, where it is applied, and the unique characteristics of your skin determine how long the design lasts before fading away--anywhere from two to four weeks. There's no pain, and the simple ingredients are unlikely to cause a reaction; those with sensitive skin, however, should do a patch test.
You don't need to be a trained artist to apply mehndi. All that's required is some creativity, some henna, and the time to relax and appreciate your body. Henna powder can be found at Indian grocery stores, on the Internet, and in mail-order catalogs. The Internet is also a good source of tips and information, with a large cyber-community sharing its enthusiasm for this art form. Rupal Pinto's site, for example, describes the right texture for finished mehndi paste--it should fall "goopily" from a spoon. Pinto also advises wearing old clothes, since henna is a dye and can stain clothing. One site recommends that beginners outline their design first in eyebrow pencil. Other sites discuss history and traditional and contemporary patterns. (See "For More Information" at the end of the article for site listings.)
Applying mehndi at home offers a great opportunity to spend time with friends. At Indian mehndi parties, women gather to laugh and sip tea for hours, and the children darting in and out inevitably end up with painted hands or fingernails. The henna paste has irresistible eye appeal for children; my five-year-old son commandeered the squeeze bottle and carefully painted his wrist with a spider dropping from its shaky web. Even husbands will want to join in the fun, perhaps requesting a private painting for just the two of you.
While consumer cosmetics have their own appeal, only mehndi can offer cosmetic self-expression with natural ingredients and an opportunity to renew appreciation of our own bodies, allowing the wearer to define her own beauty. The line of henna painted on a wrist or ankle is a line through history, and the pattern you choose will be your own talisman.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mehndi: The Timeless Art of Henna Painting.
St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Van Den Beukel, Dorine.
Traditional Mehndi Designs: A Treasury of Henna Body Art.
Shambhala Publishing, 2000
Weinberg, Norma Pasekoff.
Henna from Head to Toe.
Story Books, 1999.
Rupal Pinto's site, www.geocities.com/Broadway/5602/mehndi.html offers tutorials, sample designs, suppliers, and a list of artists.
www.tapdancinglizard.com offers an excellent review of cultural history and traditions and plenty of downloading patterns.
www.bodyartsupply.com offers step-by-step instructions.
Claudia Kousoulas is a freelance writer and mother in Bethesda, Maryland. She became interested in mehndi after having her hands painted at a New York City salon and enjoys doing her own mehndi designs. She enjoys exploring different cultures and has written cookbook reviews for magazines and Internet sites.
Photo by George Kousoulas.