The pungent smell of henna is one that I know far too well. Family members would often gang up to persuade me to surrender my hands to a henna artist during our Pakistani weddings. Even then, I would only settle for a thin bracelet on one hand, while others would fill their palms with labyrinths of vines and flowers, from their fingertips to the crevices of their wrists, and often on both sides of their hands. I preferred something less conspicuous, lacking the patience for the lengthy, messy drying process, and insecure about how my classmates would react. Throughout my upbringing in an American school, henna was not “cool”. Rather, it was the mark of something alien, viewed to be foreign and strange.
Over the past year or two, however, something changed. I’m now first in line at weddings to have my henna applied, and jump at the chance to put it on for Eid, too – and it’s not because I’ve grown to appreciate my South Asian heritage. Before the artist can begin, I pull out my phone, prepared with photos that I’ve saved of inspirational henna ideas. Gone are the customary paisleys and peacocks representative of traditional henna – in their place are deviant drawings incorporating jagged tribal stripes, chevrons and arrows with occasional commercial icons such as birds or musical notes. One photo in particular shows a blogger’s outfit post from London Fashion Week. The hand that grasps her skull-studded leather clutch is covered in a decadent henna design comprising various rings around her fingers. In other images, henna-adorned hands can be seen in the same frames as cut-off denim shorts, Nike trainers and matte black manicures. Henna, evidently, is an art form that has gone viral.
Henna, or mehndi, as it is called in Hindi and Urdu, has been used throughout South Asia, Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years to mark celebratory occasions, from weddings in India to circumcisions in Morocco. It’s extracted from Lawsonia inermis, a plant that thrives in warm climates. The custom of applying henna is laden with symbolism – in South Asian cultures, it’s said that the darker the colour of henna on a bride’s hands, the more her mother-in-law will love her, and that until it fades completely, the bride does not have to do any housework. One tradition even involves incorporating the groom’s name into the elaborate illustration on the bride’s hands. In North Africa, symbols would be drawn in henna to promote fertility and to ward off the “evil eye”.
It’s unlikely that most of today’s henna users are aware of these age-old meanings. A quick search of henna hashtags on Instagram shows that DIY enthusiasts around the world are using the concoction in their own innovative ways, inspired by tradition but giving their work a contemporary edge.
Whereas the henna of the past was usually densely drawn and almost completely filled, this neo-henna is more spaced-out and often covers only the fingers or a portion of the hand. A henna trend of late has been to imitate the look of a fingerless glove – perhaps an ode to Karl Lagerfeld’s signature leather-clad palms. Henna artists produce the image in different ways – some using traditional strokes of vines and lines; others drawing flowers within lace motifs or painting delicate grids to create a fishnet effect. Also in vogue are rosary-inspired depictions, where henna is used to replicate the image of prayer beads wrapped around the fingers. In such instances, henna acts as semi-permanent jewellery, with immaculate detail given to the chains and decorative charm tassels.