Mehndi style is delivered by an artist who, in great detail, writes stories in designs on skin. Those designs have served as talisman, family symbol and marker of significant events in a storied folk art tradition. With nothing left to chance, there is very rich symbology of belonging and culture in mehndi, a kind of identity card that speaks to life’s joys.
For 12 years at Tucson Meet Yourself, master artisan Rashda Ahmadi demonstrated her Indian mehndi henna tattoo art. Rashda Ahmadi died in 2013, and although Tucson Meet Yourself mourns the loss for both the Ahmadi family and TMY, we continue to be blessed by Rashda’s beautiful arts, which live on in her daughter Saba’s continuance of the distinctive practice.
In writings for the 2012 Tucson Meet Yourself magazine, Rashda’s process, which transformed ritual decoration into a cultural experience, was discussed:
Rashda Ahmadi, India, Mehndi Henna Tattoo Art
The deep reds of the mehndi and the decorations Rashda creates will embellish the wearer’s palms, forearms or feet through lavish body painting that represents custom, blessings and beautiful art. Rashda, who learned her art from her mother and grandmother, and in turn teaches mehndi to her daughter, Saba, says that the practice is a meaningful way to celebrate tradition and to create beauty.
At first glance, what is seen on the hand Rashda is painting is simply a pretty decoration made with quick, masterful strokes. But, looking closer, Rashda’s mehndi craftsmanship is revealed — her layering of lines and embellishments achieve a depth that communicates both nature and emotion.
Mehndi is an art form used to beautify and bless a bride and her family before the wedding. To create the body art, the leaves of the Mehndi shrub are made into a paste or dried into powder form. Once applied to the skin, the Mehndi is left to dry several hours. When the paste is removed, a brownish marking of the design is left on the skin. The ritual of Mehndi involves an entire day before the wedding, when the bride and females from both sides of the wedding gather in celebration, spending time in feast and song, and in decorating themselves in Mehndi tattoos. As festive as the Mehndi tattooing is, the role of the traditional art has deep meaning to women of India and goes beyond the cosmetic. The intricate Mehndi body painting will represent a family’s blessing and good fortune.
Rashda’s thoughtful Mehndi artwork is all about lines. Curved, dotted, curls — which become magical when drawn with the mehndi depth of color. Rashda applies her paste through a cone or a hollow utensil. She reminds the wearer to leave the paste on for a few hours so that when it flakes away it will reveal the beautiful dark stain that lasts about five days. When a hand decoration is completed, Rashda steps back and smiles.
Rashda makes use of texture, layering strands of henna to create a mood in her art. She often will tell stories as she works and has done so with her daughter, Saba. She thinks about how some families are no longer practicing mehndi and that saddens her. For Rashda it is a responsibility and a joy to help preserve and celebrate her traditional arts.
Mehndi is meant to fade away with time. Not so the impact of Rashda’s decorative art, which likely will endure, even if in just the heart of who it adorns.
Van Den Beukel, Dorine Traditional Mehndi Designs: A Treasury of Henna Body Art Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 2000