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Local Beauty Secret: Ancient Indian Art Form Appeals to Modern Audience

The art of tattooing the body with Henna, called "Mehndi," is no longer an art form restricted to Indian brides. Parul Gandhi, one of little India's most respected Mehndi artists, explains its origins and how it's gaining popularity with Americans.

Walk around Little India in Artesia and they can be seen all over—strikingly beautiful Henna tattoos that transform women’s hands and arms into artistic canvases.

While in modern Indian society (and American, too) Henna art can be a simple expression of a woman’s playfulness, there are a number of cultural meanings and traditions behind this revered art form.

Recently, Cerritos-Artesia Patch had the opportunity to speak with Parul Gandhi, owner of and one of Little India’s most well-known and respected Mehndi artists, who explained the origins and significance of Henna art in Indian culture.


Origins

The use of Henna to temporarily tattoo the body is a centuries old tradition that has origins in not only India, but also the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The tattoos are made by using a paste made from the ground leaves of the Henna plant, a shrub which is known for not only temporarily “staining” the skin, but also for its medicinal properties, which include keeping skin cool in hot climates.

For this reason, Gandhi said, the use of Henna in ancient cultures was not so artistic as it is today, because both men and women painted their bodies in the paste to keep cool. As time went on, though, the use of Henna took a creative turn and began to be used to paint bodies for religious and ceremonial purposes.

The Henna paste is made of completely natural ingredients. In her beauty salon, Gandhi said she handmakes every batch of paste made from Henna imported from India. With the ground leaves of the Henna plant, she mixes lemon juice, tea water and eucalyptus oil and puts them into mini tubes that resemble a pastry tube.

In India, the use of Henna to tattoo the body is called “Mehndi,” and its designs are typically fine and intricate. In Arabic cultures, Gandhi explained, the designs tend to be more flowery and the lines are thicker.

 

Significant Uses: Henna Serves as a Break

In Indian culture, the use of Mehndi is popular for weddings, and typically a bride will get Henna tattoos on both her arms and feet. Sometimes, the bride’s female family and friends will also get them done. The feminine designs can include religious text or a drawing of the bride and groom. As a game, sometimes the Mehndi artist will scatter the letters of the groom’s name within the design, and if he cannot find all the letters it means the woman will rule the household, Gandhi said.

Perhaps more importantly, Gandhi joked, Henna means a break for women.

“When a woman has Henna it allows her to spend more time with her husband and child because she cannot do household work such as washing dishes and cooking or it will ruin the design,” she said.

Religious events that call for Mehndi include and Diwali (Festival of Lights). While it is rare, Gandhi said that sometimes men also get Henna tattoos.

 

Care and Precautions

Gandhi explains that the best time to get a Henna tattoo is a day or two before you want to show it off because the paste needs time to darken and sink into the skin. It is also important to keep the design away from water, as water will lighten the tattoo and cause it to fade prematurely. Typically, Henna tattoos last from two to three weeks depending on care, she said.

To enhance the color, Gandhi recommends putting a mixture of lime juice and sugar after the paste has dried.

Gandhi said that she strongly discourages the use of black Henna, which is mixed with ink and can burn the skin permanently. Natural Henna, she said, is typically an orange or maroon color.

 

Popularity Continues to Grow

Recently, Gandhi said, Henna tattoos are becoming increasingly more popular. This is due, she said, to a number of Americans who are turning to Henna for a guilt-free and pain-free way to paint and design their bodies.

“A lot of women choose to do Henna tattoos instead of real ones because they are not permanent,” she said.

Pregnant women in particular, she said, often come to proudly decorate their growing bellies.

There is also an increase in “Henna parties,” where a Mehndi artist will make a home visit and tattoo a number of people. Such parties are popular for Indian brides and also for sweet sixteen parties.

 

Price

Many Indian beauty salons can do Henna tattoos and can range from $5 to nearly $400 for a bride, or some salons sell pre-made tubes of the paste for around $5.

To find out more about Henna tattoo services and costs, contact Parul Gandhi, owner of .

Maria August 25, 2011 at 06:07 AM
Beautiful photos! Her henna is absolutely stunning!
MarieSam Sanchez (Editor) August 26, 2011 at 08:21 PM
Glad you enjoyed this feature and the photos Maria! The henna tattoo was even more beautiful in person :)
Chirantan Ghosh August 30, 2011 at 11:32 AM
There is also a vital part played by "Henna" in Indian graphic arts, artists have been using Henna in their pottery tinting in ancient Pataliputra. The scholars of Nalanda university 1197 CE, used this pigment in their scrolls. I have some humble paintings utilizing heena, mixed with other media at http://painting4art.blogspot.com - hope ya'll like this new usage.

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