Ancient Art of Mehndi Attracts the Trend-Setting Crowd

For Anusha Sehgal, learning a 5,000-year-old tradition is paying off - thanks to a pop culture trend in the United States.

On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, the Boston University student is outside her father's India Antiques shop offering henna body painting, known as mehndi.

The fact that Madonna and other pop stars such as Gwen Stefani of the band No Doubt, supermodel Naomi Campbell, and actress Mira Sorvino have sported mehndi, has helped fuel a wearable-art trend that promises to grow more popular this summer.

From beauty salons and boutiques to bookstore-cafes and yoga centers, these temporary "tattoos" are being offered as fun fashion. In the United States, the practice is beginning to spread from California and New York to places in between.

Traditionally, brides in India wear the lacy patterns of mehndi instead of gold hand and feet ornaments. Yet the practice of body decoration with henna spans continents, from Asia to the Middle East and across Northern Africa. While it's ceremonial in many senses, mehndi can be seen as an everyday fashion adornment, regarded much like jewelry or makeup.

Charges of cultural imperialism

Some culture watchers have raised questions about what they see as an ancient tradition being co-opted into a Western fad. But others say the idea of Westerners embracing mehndi is a cross-cultural experience, not a cheapening of tradition.

"The reason is to beautify your body. It's not religious." says Ms. Sehgal. "To a point, [Westerners] are ripping off a cultural practice, but in a way they're exploring, and I think that's good."

Today, Gennine Zinner chooses a triangle band motif for a wrist bracelet. It's her first henna tattoo. "Why? Spontaneity. I think they're great. I've always heard about them. It's a wimpy way for someone who's always thought of getting a tattoo."

Sehgal has a booklet of hand-drawn designs to choose from. A customer then decides where the design will go. The palms or the tops of hands or feet are popular, as the designs will last longer there, than, say, on the upper arm.

The procedure is not only painless, it can be a relaxing experience. First, Sehgal spreads a tiny amount of eucalyptus oil on the area you've selected. Then she draws a design with henna paste (an all-natural herbal compound) applied through a plastic bag - in much the same way one would use a pastry bag of icing to write on a cake. The henna line-drawing is black, resembling thin licorice strands.

A dab of lemon-juice-and-sugar mixture helps it set. The black paste must be left on for six hours before the crust is peeled off, leaving a burnt-orange line drawing. The color varies depending on one's skin color, part of the body, and body heat (a warm palm will mean a darker, longer-lasting decoration.)

Sehgal, who learned the art in Delhi and started offering it here six months ago, charges from $10 to $60; the procedure takes from 5 to 15 minutes for a hand application, for example. The "tattoo" lasts from one-and-a-half to two weeks, she says.

The henna plant - Lawsonia inermis - is found in India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Africa. The leaves are ground into a powder, then mixed with water, lemon or lime juice, and sometimes oil to form dye paste. Sehgal says she disapproves of henna painting "kits" now on the market that have chemicals in them.

A performance art

"People look for ways to adorn their bodies, through makeup, jewelry, piercings, tattoos," says Carine Fabius, author of "Mehndi: The Art of Henna Body Paint," due out this June (Clarkson Potter/Random House.) Ms. Fabius is co-owner of Galerie LaKaye in Los Angeles, which sponsored "The Mehndi Project" when artist Loretta Roome offered mehndi as a kind of performance art. For information, visit the Web site

Lise Anderson, owner of Andalusia boutique in Cleveland, learned henna body painting in Little India in Los Angeles before moving to the Midwest.

"We do need to look at our culture and celebrate diversity. For me, I'm fascinated with cultural practices and traditions," says Ms. Anderson, who is also a jeweler. Her clientele tend to be female - "everyone from an exotic dancer to a minister." Not long ago, she did a Muslim wedding party.

In Lexington Park, Md., Debbie Patterson of Castilian salon says she has had requests for Celtic designs such as knots, which speaks of the broadening of the design repertoire. "It's popular because it's not permanent," she says. "For most people it's just a fad, but I'll be doing it for a long time."

* Other Web sites: The Henna Page:

The Mehndi Project in N.Y.

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