The tattoo artist dips a paper cone into a thick greenish-black mixture, and methodically paints dots and droplet-designs in a swirling pattern on the back of the woman's hand. The mixture has a pleasantly earthy, perfume-edged scent mixing with the wafting incense on the designers' tiny work station. One woman sits around this circle and holds her finished design over a candle to keep it warm. Another dabs her finger design with a sugar-and-lemon mixture to keep it moist, darkening the to deep, reddish-brown a tattoo that can last up to a week.
Mehndi--the art of dying the skin with henna-has become a hot fashion, since pop icons like Madonna and Mira Sorvino began sporting the look a few years ago. "Traditional Mehndi Designs" by Dorine van den Beukel (Shambhala Publications, 208 pp.) offers a descriptive glimpse into the history and artwork of this elegant process. The book depicts over 500 patterns-from intricate floral and paisleys surrounding a betrothed couple to peacocks, leaves, vibrant suns and even a swastika. The swastika, Van Den Beukel points out, is an ancient Indian symbol of well-being in the future. (And an example of a good symbol gone bad!)
Mehndi is the Hindi word for henna--a large plant with white flowers that grows in North Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. Henna is used for medicinal properties as well as for body decoration. In Sephardic Jewish, Hindu and Islamic marriages the adornments are considered to bring good fortune. The practice is widespread in Indian and African cultures where it is used for various religious ceremonies, fasting and festivals. "The symbols are generally of nature, and their purpose is for beautification," says Cindy Raimondo, a Mehndi artist. "They're often thought to bring fertility. In the Indian tradition, they'll hide the name of the husband in their design. If he can't find it, then, they believe, it's not the right match."
Mehndi also provides women with social time, as they may spend a full day applying the henna paste to the hands, arms and feet of their relative or friend. "It's seen as the last time that a family can take care of their soon-to-be wed daughter," says Raimondo. "The process to create the henna paste is somewhat arduous-you sift the leaves to remove any debris, add a hot mixture of tea or coffee and mustard oil until it has a mud-like consistency. Then, it must cool for 48 hours before it as applied to the skin.
Van Den Beukel's book describes the craft in a detailed introduction, providing the reader with enough information to create the paste on his or her own. Following the brief history and instruction are nearly 200 pages of elegant black and white diagrams and illustrations; the book is a valuable resource for someone interested in studying the art of Mehndi.
In this world of high-speed connections, many are finding the slow and languid qualities of this tradition quite refreshing. During the 24-hour period that the woman has henna on, she can't do anything for herself." Although Mehndi is still used in religious ceremonies, Raimondo says that even in India, women consider it fashionable. "Salons there are offering it now," she says. At her store Ruka, on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Raimondo charges $25 to $40 for a tattoo (depending on intricacy and size) and the clientele ranges from teenagers looking for a tattoo their parents will allow to older women looking to spice up a night out.
Back at the recording studio, the artist completes her design: a flame inside a spiraling motif of dots, stylized flowers and vines. The recipient smiles, admiring and turning her hand in the light. 'Warm it near the candles," advises the designer, "And leave it on for as long as you can so the stain is richer....Okay, next?" A man bends down pointing to the top of his very bald head. "A lotus flower, right here," he gestures. The artist laughs, "No problem." And the Mehndi tradition continues to evolve.