Saturday, June 29, 2002

Mehndi patterns rule the fashion world
Pinky Adil

Mehndi designs can be intricate, covering the entire palm
Mehndi designs can be intricate, covering the entire palm

AFTER centuries of being thought of as a part of bridal wear, a cooling agent and a hair dye, mehndi is now cutting across all barriers to become the trendiest colourant for the fashion conscious today. Whether it is around the belly button, back, arms or ankles, the traditional henna is regarded as safe and hassle-free.

Extracted from a small shrub, hawsonia inermis, mehndi is said to be an import from North Africa. The young leaves and twigs are ground to a fine powder, then mixed with hot water and applied to the body or hair to leave a reddish-orange tint. The green powder can also be mixed with tea, coffee, lemon juice, sugar, eucalyptus or clove oil and sometimes, even with tamarind paste.

Cones made from polythene are used to hold the paste and then gently pressed against the body to create patterns, like one does for the icing on a cake. The skin is usually cleaned with rose or orange flower water, then massaged with eucalyptus oil and the mehndi applied thereafter.


The designs last anywhere from one to four weeks, depending on how well the colour has caught on, the particular body area where it has been applied and the frequency with which it is exposed to water, soap or scrubbing. Likewise the intensity of the colour (from transparent orange to reddish brown) would depend on the body temperature and area (warm palms reveal the darkest shades), how well it is protected as it dries and, of course, how it is left on.

In the early days, mehndi constituted an essential part of the wedding ritual as the bride had to get both her hands and feet decorated with the dye. In many cultures, the front and back of the hands and arms right up to the elbows and the bottom half of the legs were decorated with the green paste before the nuptials.

Today, with body painting becoming a craze, nobody needs an excuse for applying mehndi. Designs can be intricate or bold, covering the entire hands, palm, navel and back, or merely accenting the wrists and ankles. And the best part is that unlike tattoo, it is painless and not permanent.

Cashing in on its popularity, beauty salons are now offering ‘mehndi treatments’ in keeping with the latest design trends and coordinated with the dress you choose to wear (depending upon the occasion). They are also offering do-it-yourself kits with specially processed henna, packaged for convenient application and a booklet with a variety of patterns for different parts of the body.

Inside the parlour, though, specially-trained artisans work with squeeze bottles, cones and toothpicks to apply the mehndi. You can suggest your own pattern or go for standard designs appropriate for festivals like Id, Divali and Holi, using fresh ingredients, rather than the packaged mehndi which has probably been stored for months.

Beauticians point out that even youngsters are clear about the designs they want and would rather specify their requirement than count on what is available ready-made. The most popular are the highly intricate designs, based on butterfly, fish or peacock motifs with finely detailed patterns. The effect is that of a lace fabric, as great attention is given to filling the gaps surrounding the main motif.

The second most popular designs are said to be based on ‘Sudanese patterns’, which are strikingly large, bold and floral with sharp geometric angles and curves. Unlike the commonplace mehndi applications, these are distinctive for contrasting black patterns on an orange or light red base.

Then there are the patterns derived from Persian art, most notably inspired by ancient miniatures, hems of royal costumes and sculptural relief on forts and palaces. But these are reserved for special occasions like weddings and engagement ceremonies.

There are also mehndi patterns that are created with bare fingers. In its most common form (as seen mostly in South India), a circular pattern is drawn in the centre of the palm and the fingertips are capped with henna paste. For that typical banjaran (gypsy) look, with colourful ghagra-cholis and armsful of white bangles, this is the most convenient application. MF