"I am tired,” whines the bride-to-be who has been reclining at an awkward angle on a lounge chair for the past two hours while a mehndi artist applies henna to her palms and feet.
Twenty-one-year-old Khadija smiles as she creates patterns with the lightly scented henna oozing from the lean, silver cone in her hand. Even though the bride-to-be is weary and stiff and there is the raucous din of song and thumping drums around her, Khadija is patient and persistent with a hawk’s eye for detail.
“There’s just something very joyful about being part of the celebrations in weddings and Eids!” she says. “It’s nice to know that people think of you when they wish to rejoice.”
Drawing intricate henna patterns on a bride’s hands is an art not always an easy art to master
Khadija’s interest in henna application started when she joined a mehndi class during her summer break at the age of 12. She recalls how the instructor taught her to first draw neat patterns on paper with a pen. Next, they were asked to make a paste from flour and fill it in cones like a piping bag and learn how to squeeze out the paste smoothly and not in clumps. It was only then that they progressed to tracing designs copied from books with henna onto a mirror surface. “This was good exercise to steady my hand,” she says.
Today, Khadija is one of the many girls who earn up to 30,000 rupees per month when the wedding season is at its peak. “The winter, as well as the months between the two Eids, is the time when weddings are in full swing.”
When there is a bride to cater to, Khadija says that she charges 3,000 rupees for arms (up to the elbow) as well as feet. “Most brides prefer intricate patterns which take hours to apply. For me it takes five hours but it doesn’t tire me as it’s my passion!” she shares. “Others also opt for Indian checkered or large Arabic patterns.”
She keeps up with the trends that high-end parlours create. “You can’t compete with the big wigs,” she says, “Their mehndi artists are quite sophisticated and they charge three times of what I charge.”
Besides going solo, Khadija is also part of a group of 12 women — from various ages and backgrounds — who go to people’s homes to apply mehdni for weddings.
“If we have over 50 clients at a mehndi function, then we need all hands on board,” Khadija explains. “Sometimes the demand is so high that we have to distribute ourselves in two or three groups to meet the needs of different clients.” She shares that her group charges 70 rupees per palm for application.
Kiran, a 39-year-old mother of one, began her stint with mehndi started in 2012 with an upscale parlour in Defence. With a good five-years’ experience under her belt, she now earns up to 35,000 rupees a month while the salon she works at charges up to 10,000 rupees for a bride’s mehndi and 500 rupees for regular application. “We are encouraged to keep up with the latest henna trends and we are eager to improvise.”
Kiran says that at the parlour where she is employed, clients demand for certain mehndi artists or even a particular design. “These days, they want a combination of red mehndi outlined with black mehndi which is basically dye.” Even the original green mehndi, she admits, has chemicals which may allow a quicker colour to appear on the palms. “But this mehndi seems to come off in a few days. It doesn’t fade, but peels off, sometimes taking the skin with it.”
Kiran laughs as she reminisces that her grandmother used to tell her tales of how original henna was a greenish-brown paste of the flowering shrub Lawsonia inermis. “It was ground with a mortar and pestle and made into a homely smelling paste,” she says. “Mehndi was painstakenly applied with a silver stick onto the bride’s hands and feet by family members. Then they would dab the dried henna at intervals with a solution of lemon and sugar water to ensure the flakes would not fall off. The resulting colour would not fade for a good three weeks. That was the time the bride wasn’t supposed to do anything in her new home, after which she ended up being part of the domestic workforce interminably.”
Today, brides choose from three kinds of patterns: the Arabic design is linear with big flowers, punctuated by empty spaces which offers relief and make the pattern clearly visible; Indian designs has checks, peacocks and floral motifs; and the more popular Indo-Arabic fusion which boasts geometric triangles along with flowers. Added to this is the highlighting and shading with regular green, dyed red and black mehndi.
Old wives’ tales tattle about how the colour of a bride’s henna reflects the kind of relationship she will have with her spouse or even mother-in-law. Many traditional henna designs are symbols of prosperity, love, loyalty, fertility and luck. Many traditions also include hiding the letters of the bridegroom’s name in the henna pattern which the groom is urged to find on the wedding day.
Aiman is known as a bridal henna expert in her locality. During the wedding season she sometimes has four to five brides as clients per day. “I find myself leaving home at 7am and returning after midnight, sometimes even skipping meals. I know this is the season to milk it as much as I can. I end up earning around 200,000 rupees in a month when the going’s really good,” she says with pride.
She shares horror stories she has heard about mehndi which has burnt and scarred brides’ hands. “The chemical they lace the mehndi with is paraphenylenediamine (PPD). I don’t use it,” she assures quickly, “I have a reputation to live up to.”
However, the most fascinating is the West’s growing penchant for mehndi. Sarah is a Pakistani, raised in Hong Kong, who works under the label of Sarashenna. “I specialise in creative body art and bridal henna — more specifically bespoke love story designs where I use the entire body as a canvas to create unique works of art with a message and a story behind each one,” she explains. “The bespoke love story designs include modern improvisations like skylines, landmarks and proposal scenes. Another popular trend is ‘reverse negative designs’ that look so striking because of how bold they are.”
Sarah prepares her own henna using pure Rajasthani henna powder adding pure essential oils — such as Cajeput, lavender and eucalyptus from the US and Australia — lemon juice and sugar. “The henna making process is time-consuming and tedious but the result is a beautiful organic stain and a heavenly scent!”
‘Emergency cones’ make her cringe. She thinks them ‘an abuse of the art’ and ‘poison.’
“I feel that Pakistan is a very saturated market, with people taking henna art for granted; I sense there’s neither a lot of respect for the art nor the artists,” she adds.
Sarah started her stint with henna a decade ago in Hong Kong and thus has basically had Western and Chinese clients. She has also catered to brides who have destination weddings. They were happy to pay 1,000 US dollars for her art but since her move to Karachi two years ago, she has reduced her prices for bridal henna to between 25,000 rupees and 45,000 rupees.
There is something soothing and therapeutic about sitting for a henna application. You can’t help but be entranced by the designs which unfold on your palm, like a tapestry, echoing tradition. It sings of a celebration.
Every time I have henna applied I leave it up to the artist. “Do whatever you wish,” I say. And then I watch as a scented world is created right on the palm of my hand.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 25th, 2018