Hand Me the Henna
Location: Bagwandeen Household Mission: Mehndi Day (phase 3)
The Body- What is happening?
If this were a race, we are almost at the finish line and we are winning. We have taken the heat head on, and the first day which marks the beginning of the wedding week is about to come to an end. As the mehndi artist continues to apply ravishing designs on my sister’s body, she proceeds from the arms, to the feet, with extreme care and undiminished concentration. After the latest outburst that emerged from ‘the wedding jitters’, Kashmir is much calmer now while she is fed lunch by my little niece. Being a child, she is distracted by the magnificent art. So, with each helping of food that she feeds to my sister, she marvels with delight at my sister’s arms and feet.
I sit with them both as we discuss the forthcoming festivities; the exhilaration in our voices is noticeable. With each bite that Kashmir is fed, I stare at the spoon with the hope that in the midst of our merriment, the food will not fly off of it. I know my sister’s first instinct would be to clutch the spoon, or instantaneously stand up, but we can’t afford a mishap right now – we have come so far in seeing this mendhi ordeal through, and we are nearly at the end.
The artist is reaching my sister’s calves and Kashmir is starting to get slightly twitchy. I think to myself, “there’s just a few minutes more and we are done. I will no longer need to be a right hand lady, and my niece can finally take a mid-day nap.” Only in this moment did it occur to my sister that we are nowhere near the completion of this majestic process (which, in the blistering heat, isn’t feeling very grand.) There is still another five hours to go. The job of the mehndi artist is now completed, and now it is up to us (as the family) to take care of my sister’s exquisite hands and feet so that all of the work that was put into it would not be in vain.
Kashmir now moves herself out of the sun and into the dining room so that the rest of us can commence the preparations for the evening’s celebrations. It is not easy for a perfectionist like my sister to sit on the sidelines and watch everything being done before her eyes ; to be entirely unable to contribute to what we’re doing. But she took everything in her stride and ceased this as an opportunity to take a break from the busy household.
Every few minutes, one of us breaks away from our preparation duties to moisten the inevitably drying henna on my sister. I am the first to start this process.
I am under a lot of pressure as I take a ball of cotton wool and dip it into the concoction that the artist left for us to use. This all begins to alarm my sister as she knows I can be a little careless at times. Thankfully, she was observing the artist when she performed this routine, and so she guided me through it with ease and elation to be helping in some way.
Everyone has had their turn to assist the bride-to-be as the day descends. Night begins to fall, and as the stars burn the dark sky, the copper coat becomes more rooted onto my sister’s body. Old traditions believe that the darker the stain of your mehndi, the more love your mother-in-law will have for you. So, fingers are crossed for Kashmir.
Guests start to fill the house and the sound of music ignites the celebrations. In every corner of the house, there are groups of laughing girls tapping their feet to the music as they get their turn to have their palms adorned in mendhi. Kashmir greets all her guests and this is accompanied by warm hugs before everyone admires her beautiful hands. There is a light in her eyes that I’ve never seen before- this is the light of a bride-to-be. She is glowing.
It is now time for us to remove the mehndi and admire the dazzling tint that will be left behind. My eldest sister and I help Kashmir rub the mehndi off her body as she twitches and fusses as a result of being exhausted.
The morning after today will reveal the actual hue of the bridal mehndi. So, as she dances the night away with family and friends, the colour will seep through her skin, and leave the true mark of the extraordinary bride that she is.
The Mind- The Backdrop of Henna as an Art
Henna artists, Dipti and Sayuiri Nathoo, are a dynamic mother and daughter duo situated in Durban. They explained that they have come across a multitude of brides who have requested that their henna designs be symbolic to elements of themselves, their families and even their first meeting with the groom. Despite the fact that patterns with such great sentimental value may be challenging to execute, henna artists respect their responsibility to master the trade, and are devoted to fulfilling the wishes of their clients to the best of their abilities.
In addition to hands, the bride-to-be gets her feet adorned with henna too. This is the completion of the henna process, once the feet are ready-in the Hindu tradition; the bride-to-be is then ready to conquer day two of the beautifying process. This is usually a prayer followed by the application of hurdee or haldi, this is a yellow paste made from turmeric and sandalwood. Both these rituals enhance the procedure of self-expression that the bride undertakes before her big day.
Although these sacraments are seen as a technique in which she can express herself and her inner beauty, it is entrenched in the roots of traditional India. At the time, the community didn’t have jewelry or foundation to add to their special day, so they created natural ways to replace these characteristics of bridal preparation that we commonly take for granted.
The history and the meaning behind the application of henna, including the traditional mehndi ceremonies, have rich significance in guiding us with understanding how these practices came into existence. As the traditions continue, the effect strengthens and this is reflected in the self-expression of those who indulge in it.
The Spirit- How does it make me feel?
How do you come to conclude something that is so sacrosanct to beauty and expression? Something that has been in action for thousands of years and has had a substantial impact on the rituals traditional Indian brides immerse themselves into. The answer is, you cannot. I have always felt strongly about culture and tradition, and this being one that has such beauty attached to it- there will never be an adequate amount of words to explain the splendor behind an act that is sustained by tradition.
There are countless customs over numerous cultures that mirror the act of self-expression, some new and some old. It can be enlightening to expose your mind and discover the extensive spectrum of ‘techniques’ that have a list of purposes including self-expression.
I have found that, in many settings, beautifying can be seen as an egotistical act but, within these settings, there is still the implication of expressing yourself.
The mehndi ceremony will always be one I keep close to me, and the experience can be imprinted on your mind forever. As henna grows progressively popular in western societies, it becomes more recognisable as to why and how it can be used. Sometimes westernization of longstanding practices can contribute to the meaning being lost in translation and the practice could even be trivialized but I hope this has delivered a better understanding.
So next time you come across a henna artist, don’t forget to ask her to hand you the henna!
Written by- Khinali Bagwandeen
Photographs by- Khinali Bagwandeen