Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Paint It On

The intricate art of mehndi

Mehndi—the art of applying intricate patterns using henna ink—has become immensely popular in the last few years, largely thanks to Westerners looking for the hip, beautiful and slightly exotic. For Risha Nathwani, however, mehndi is far more than a fad. The Torontonian began doing mehndi for family and friends as a teenager. Intrigued by the art and finding she had a natural proficiency for it, Nathwani decided to travel to India, where she spent a year taking classes to perfect her skills.

The twenty-two-year-old now works part-time as a henna artist. Though most of her work comes from mehndi parties—pre-wedding gatherings at which female friends and relatives get together with the bride to eat, chat and get decorated for the big day—Nathwani is also getting business from such non-traditional sources as yoga groups, baby showers (where the mother’s belly is decorated with henna designs) and birthday parties.

The origins of henna art are unclear, but the practice dates back at least five thousand years. The Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians are all known20to have used henna, and Egyptian mummies have been discovered decorated with henna stain. The ink is quite easy to make: dried leaves and twigs from the henna plant (a small shrub that grows in hot climates) are crushed and mixed with oil and a darkening agent, often coffee or tea. A wide variety of implements can then be used to apply the paste: toothpicks, knitting needles or the cones—similar to pastry bags—preferred by Nathwani and many other henna artists.

Patterns differ from culture to culture. Arabic mehndi generally features large, floral patterns, while Indian mehndi often uses finer lacy and paisley designs. African mehndi, on the other hand, is known for its bold, geometrically patterned angles. “Mehndi isn’t from one culture or one people, so when I do henna I feel free to mix Arabic with Indian styles,” says Nathwani.

Wedding mehndi designs often incorporate the initials of the bride and groom, which the groom must find in order for the wedding night to begin. The tradition is a hold-over from when arranged marriages were the norm, says Nathwani. “The bride and groom often didn’t meet until the day of the wedding, so there was a certain shyness there. Finding the initials in the henna was kind of a game, a good way to ease the bedroom jitters.”