Monday, June 15, 2009

Mehndi Matters

We are supposed to travel out of Mumbai , shortly for a family wedding.

While, the possibility of having to miss classes, being permitted to make them up later, travel reservations , the mode of travel, allowed luggage restrictions and similar stuff, should be items to make you worry and lose sleep for sometime,
it will probably surprise no one now to hear, that the key question happens to be whether, we are reaching in time for time Mehndi function....

Mehndi (Henna Patterns) on a bride's limbs is a very traditional thing , that's been followed , not only in India, but parts of the Middle East and even Africa. In certain parts of India, it has more importance as an event, and, it more or less functions as a Ladies Evening , where there are Henna artists who sit and painstakingly draw artistic patterns on every arm stretched in front of them; the future mother-in-law, putting the symbolic first Mehndi touch , for the daughter-in-law-to-be, is an indulgently observed ritual, and there is a lot of good food, and music and dancing.

When I was a child, in my own community, Mehndi was not such a wildly celebrated event, . Yes, there would be some expert ladies amongst the relatives who excelled in the art, and they would take great pride in sitting with the bride and doing the designs on the hands and arms. Many times, in many households, this design, really, was a big filled circle in the middle of the palm, and then the colored fingertips. Mehndi by itself, was a very dark green paste made from Mehndi leaves , sometimes enhanced with a dollop of tea, and the technique of doing designs was achieved by using something like an icing cone to squeeze the Mehndi.

As little girls, there was this great excitement about sleeping with Mehndi applied hands. The paste had to stay undisturbed on your hands and dry completely, for the orange designs to manifest themselves. Someone would come around with a glass of lemon juice , guaranteed to brighten the end result, and we would put some of that on an actually drying Mehndi design. Weddings often meant a gaggle of cousins sleeping together in a huge room on mattresses laid out on the floor, and in all the excitement, unavoidable sleep, and shoving , pushing and turning in your sleep , it was not uncommon for some folks to wake up with a complete mess of a design. For people like the bride, she sat with both her hands held out, ladies painstakingly doing designs there; assorted cousins and aunts appeared regularly with plates of delicious stuff, and fed spoon fulls to the bride, who wouldn't be able to use her hands for some time now.

In my childhood, I don't remember there being any Mehndi ceremonies as such , with entire evenings dedicated to them. But North India, has this custom, and thanks to the early breezes of globalization, this custom has now been adopted happily by many people in India. Today, there are heavily-in-demand Mehndi artists, who actually take reservations for this work. The bride actually gets special clothes stitched with special jewellery for this occasion. Special video photographers are contracted to film all this, and the video often opens with a shot of both the palms held open, with a beautiful Mehndi design showing, and then the camera slowly shows who the hands belong to.

But there are also some non wedding Mehndi memories.

A 7 year old nephew was having a "thread ceremony" (similar in concept to the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, or Zorastrian Navjote). Some Mehndi artists were supposed to come and do the hands of the family ladies. The young chap, himself a good artist was intrigued. He wanted some Mehndi designs too. But as someone who was crazy about elephants , he wanted an elephant on each palm. The artists obliged . The next day, when the video chaps came, I requested them to do an opening shot of a little pair of hands opening up to show two great Mehndi elephants. They were a bit shocked at first; they had never done these kind of Mehndi shots for thread ceremonies. The final video had a typical Mehndi palm opening sequence, with the camera slowly moving up, to show a young fellow, thrilled to bits, grinning away , displaying a bunch of missing teeth...

Away from weddings, if you visit the Hanuman temple in the heart of New Delhi, there is a wide open space where there are several rural Mehndi artist ladies, who will do a design either on one hand or both, for a fixed fee. This is actually a tourist attraction, and the facility is always crowded.

About 17 years ago, on a trip to New Delhi and places up North, we visited this place in Delhi a day before we returned to Mumbai. My daughter, then a little girl, was absolutely smitten with a complicated peacock design, and insisted on getting it done.
Amazingly, I have never seen her sit so still since then.

The artist did a wonderful job, and told her how to hold her hands in front, all the way home, so that the design would dry properly without messing the design.
We hailed a 3 wheeler to go back, and the first problem, was getting into the vehicle, as now she couldn't clutch the rod to climb in. Fortunately, her brother who was in an indulgent frame of mind then, lifted her and put her inside, and we followed. About 20 minutes of holding the hands into the breeze ( she thought it would dry faster), and we reached our place.

Turns out, that weddings, Mehndi, trips and several other things, bow low in the face of natural processes.

I noticed my daughter shuffling from one foot to another. Then she kind of advanced to on-the-spot-jogging. She looked at me, beseechingly, hands still held out in front.

"I need to go. Really bad. But how do I unfasten the jeans ? Yikes. Help !" And so there we were. Both of us crowded into a small bathroom. I helped her unfasten and further. . Some time later, repeated the process in reverse. Emerged back in the room, where her brother gave her a very disgusted look.

She had already forgotten. She was busy sitting and admiring her designs on her hand. And probably wondering what she was going to do about dinner, and who would be feeding her...

Back to the present.

The same little girl, now an adult, is ecstatic that she will be making it in time for the Mehndi ceremony of this wedding. New outfits and matching jewellery have been acquired. And you can't wear those without silver coated footwear.

The search is on.

But before that , the Mehndi designs on the ankle ......

Sometimes, I wonder whose wedding it is.


  1. Mehendi seems to me to be synonymous with the patience associated with Indian women. And of course, the craftsmanship is amazing. Bengalis are fairly new to mehendi, courtesy Hindi movies. Earlier it was the 'alta'.

    I have tagged you at Past Continuous. Looking forward to your take on it.

  2. Hehe, its the same in England! Globalisation indeed!

  3. I love the Mehndi designson the feet. It looks like decorative hosiery.

    I don't think I would like designs on my hands. As your daughter found out, it restricts what you can do.

    How long does the design stay on? Can you wash your hands and not ruin it? I have never heard of this custom and am learning so much. Thank you, Ugich.

  4. yeah! Sucharita said exactly what I was about to comment on...that we used to have alta (which made a brief comeback after Aishwarya applied it in Devdas!) but now we too have the mehndi get-together with the sangeet!

    Loved the 11 year old girl funny!! But all too familiar!!

  5. Mehendi a decoration in hands or feet is now becoming popular other than Northern India. I knew only ladies put it during marriages but Mehendi in thread ceromony was not known to me.

  6. Mehendi has become part of every wedding irrespective of the community. In our weddings it generally was a blob in the centre of the palm and on the fingers. Now thanks to movies and TV it has become imperative to have a mehendi ceremony.And elaborate designs too. The mehendi applying experts are called and they charge quite a fortune. My daughter suddenly realised that she wanted mehendi on her hands for her engagement and rushed to a nearby park where these ladies apply mehendi. But for her wedding we had to seek an appointment well in advance. But it does look pretty in the wedding pictures!

  7. Nice post! Yes, Mehndi application has now become a popular ritual before weddings.

    When I was a young girl and living in a small town, we used to crush up the Mehndi leaves into a paste and apply it all over our palms and on our fingers.

    But I like the elaborate designs that girls create nowadays.:)

  8. I guess i am as smitten by the Mehendi as your daughter. For my wedding I had mehendi past my elbows all the way upto the middle of my upper arm. And on feet covering the entire surface and past my ankle. It was such thrill to get that done.

  9. The designs are new. It used to be applied as 'lumps' in Tamil weddings. Overtime, it became an 'unboy' thing. and hence we were dissuaded from applying.

    But the other fact was it required an awesome amount of time too. I dont know what technology has done to it in recent time.

    And good luck on the silver coated footwear !!

  10. I must admit, the artist in me has always admired the beautiful work of such designs! I loved reading this post and crave to read more.

    I also had to laugh about your daughter needing to go to the bathroom. It was in my mind, "If they can't move their hands, how do they take care of necessary things..."

  11. I love mehendi!!! Had a ball with it at my wedding....... ofcourse families both sides sneered (bengalis think it to be an islamic tradition) but who cares I was getting married only once.

    The saddest part is it goes off after some days..... I wish it would stay longer!!!

    Your daughter is right..... you definitely need silver footwear else the mehendi won't look!!!