Ravie Kattaura has applied mehndi or henna on many brides. Of them, 11 have been Caucasian with no Indian connections. Two decades ago, henna, a part of Indian and South Asian culture, was struggling to find acceptance within the American milieu. The peculiar smell, so appealing to Indians, may have been considered obnoxious to Americans. The same can hardly be said about it now.
An art finding origins in South Asia, Middle East, India and North Africa, henna, also called mehndi in Hindi and Urdu has adorned hands and feet of women for centuries. From geometric designs in Morocco to the more fluid, floral designs in India, henna, extracted from the plant Lawsomia inermis has been used for its cooling properties on skin, as a dye and as a culturally integral part of weddings.
Rising popularity in America
Celebrities like Madonna, Ariana Grande, Gigi Hadid, Rihanna and Kylie Jenner flaunting their henna adorned hands has propelled it to instant stardom in the West.
Neha Assar, a celebrity mehndi artist from Cerritos, CA talking about how perceptions towards this art form have changed told NBC News, “Growing up, I’d get teased for my henna and kids would say, ‘what’s that orange stuff on your hands?’ And when my daughter does mehndi, she’s the coolest kid. Times have changed.”
The artistry behind henna has evolved at fashion shows, red carpet events and various non-bridal events, Assar, with her henna work at major award shows like the Grammy’s, Emmy’s, Oscars, and the MTV Movie Award pre- parties says.
Henna tattoos are so much more accessible now. Of course, the fact that it is a temporary tattoo adds to its appeal, especially to those who are wary of indulging in permanent ones. This gives the individual a myriad of options in exploring new designs keeping interest alive. It is safer temporary tattoo, since the skin is not pierced by a needle, so it is painless as well. Stencils, glitter and white henna have also added to the mystique.
Henna with a purpose
The true beauty of an art lies in its application beyond the traditionally accepted approaches, harmonizing the delicacy and appeal of henna with a whole new purpose.
One such endeavor is ‘Henna Heals,’ a Canada based community of henna artists dedicated to creating beautiful henna crown tattoos for women who have lost their hair to cancer. “For cancer patients, the henna crowns really are a healing experience,” founder Frances Darwin tells Demilked.
“This is all about them reclaiming a part of themselves that would normally be perceived as ill or damaged or not nice to look at and making it more feminine and beautiful.”
Henna is not just a beautiful motif; it is also a vehicle of empowerment and self-expression.
Henna no longer limited to body art
Ravie Kattaura, a software designer by occupation and a mehndi artist by passion, from Fremont, CA is transforming the way the west looks at henna. Going beyond its image as body art, she has successfully created an awareness and a market for it through artistry on the most unlikely of objects- candles and gift boxes.
As most new ideas, henna candle art also came to Ravie through an idle evening as she began dawdling on a plain candle with one of her left-over henna cones from a bridal mehndi she had just come from. Thinking nothing of it initially, the encouragement from her friends propelled her into making a business out of it, since candles are so hugely popular in America. Live demonstrations at Harvest and Wine and Art Festivals across California have helped educate people, she says.
Many women, like Ravie have found their strength through this very traditional art form, finding new horizons in an ever-evolving world.
Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Sharing?
Henna has undoubtedly found its adherents in America, but is it cultural appropriation or cultural sharing?
There are advocates of both for there is a thin line between the two. When does sharing become appropriation?
Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of ‘Who owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law,’ has defined cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore…etc.”
For the ‘appropriation’ ideologists, the west may have opened its eyes to the beauty of this art, but without giving credit to its origin with no understanding of its cultural or religious significance. Culture cannot be tainted as a mere accessory. Can it?
Mihenna, owned by first generation Indian American Shalina Jaffer is trying to alter this perception. Their DIY henna kits have not only made henna more accessible but are a step towards building a diverse community through the exchange of cultural ideas, focusing on ‘cultural sharing.’
With almost 80% of her client base American, coming from all cultural backgrounds, Jaffer, in a chat with me explained why henna has become more popular in the past 15 years: “In the West, there has been a shift towards healthy living and safe products. Henna being an all-natural, organic product, is an amazing choice for those looking for a clean way to self-express and be creative.”
So the next time we see henna adorned hands, accessories or candles, let’s celebrate the rich cultures it comes from, understand it and share it with the world. With pride.