Mehndi: From Tradition to Fashion

Freshly applied henna by Manisha Trivedi.

Four hours later . . .

What happens when an ancient traditional practice becomes a mainstream fashion statement? Well, perhaps not mainstream.  But I have noticed a difference since the last time I had henna applied to my hand by a traditional mehndi artist, some 15 years ago. The practice of applying dye from the henna plant to beautify the skin is well known throughout India, where it is most commonly associated with the adornment of a bride, a couple of days before her wedding. But less so here in New England. Or so I thought, until I noticed how many people outside of the Indian community saw the applied design and knew exactly what it was. It was one thing for the wait staff at a local Indian restaurant to say, “I love your mehndi.” But almost everywhere I went, from the pharmacy to the grocery store, the bus stop to the library, people were familiar with the practice of mehndi. We have celebrities such as Madonna to thank for popularizing this art form.

Manisha Trivedi is a skillful artist who first learned mehndi as a youngster in Mumbai. She and her husband relocated to Massachusetts a decade ago. She has many bridal customers. Her clients are both from within the Indian community as well as general public who have discovered the art through popular culture. Traditionally, mehndi has been done as good luck for a bride. A typical session may take four to five hours to apply. Ever since Hollywood celebrities have taken to having mehndi, it is now not uncommon to find henna art available in the local mall or beauty salon. But the cultural traditions surrounding mehndi are probably not part of the service. Manisha tells this story about the use of mehndi in very traditional arranged marriages, when the bride and groom typically have not spent time together before the wedding. Once married, and alone for the first time together, they play a game in which the groom searches for the letters of his name, which have been hidden within the mehndi design. Searching for his name, while handling her arms, is a way of breaking the ice. If he cannot find his name, he has to give his bride a nice gift.

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