Case Study

Mehendi Party: A Pakistani/Indian Pre-marital Tradition

Excerpted fromWedding Song: Henna Art Among Pakistani Women in New York City by Susan Slyomovics, (New York: Susan Slyomovics, 1990)

Mehendi is the traditional art of decorating women's hands and feet with henna to celebrate weddings and other festive occasions. The word Mehendi describes both the artist's medium, henna, and the process of creating and painting ornate designs. Over many centuries, the henna leaf, derived from an extraction of the Lowsonia tree, has been used for medicinal purposes, dyeing fabrics and decorating bodies.

For the modern Indian or Pakistani woman, once a wedding date has been arranged, decorating the bride is the occasion for a special celebration called the mehendi party. The night before the party, the mehendiwalli or female mehendi artist, prepares the ground henna powder. She cleanses the powder of twigs and stems, sifts it and soaks it in a decoction of tea water with lemon juice (to impart a deep color) and sugar (to thicken the paste). Then she forms cones from rolled plastic sheets which she fills with spoonfuls of henna paste. The henna-filled cones resemble a confectioner's pastry tube and allow for controlled application of paste to skin. Designs for the palm are the most intricate and the sole of the foot is left bare.

When asked why she decorates only the bride's hands and feet, mehendi artist, Shenaz Hooda [who lives in Queens, New York], replied that formerly only the delicate hands and feet of the bride were visible to the world while the rest of the body was draped and veiled with cloth. Thus, the bridal body is either covered with cloth or with design. Hidden within the mehendi pattern, Shenaz paints individual letters to form the groom's name among the floral designs of the bride's palms. On the wedding night it is customary for the bride to ask the groom to search for the initials of his name hidden among the designs drawn on his new wife's hands. if he finds the name he is said to dominate the bride. If he cannot find the name, the bride rules the groom.

The painted mehendi lines become part of the surface of the body. Lines are raised in relief formed by the hardened henna paste. For a period of twenty-four hours, from the beginning of the painting process which may also last several hours, until the next morning, the drying application of henna must not be disturbed. During this time, the bride cannot feed herself and her male relatives often take care of household tasks. Throughout the evening, the henna application is regularly moistened with lemon juice so as to dye the skin a deeper red.

Decorating the bride's limbs is the occasion for celebration and musical performance. Family and close women friends, with hands newly hennaed, dance and sing folk-songs and riddles to the beat of the drum in order to divert the bride during the lengthy hand and feet painting. The verbal artistry of their lyrics tease and mock the prospective groom and in-laws. The occasion is both sad and happy. After the wedding the bride leaves her family for a new environment. In the meantime it is her friends' task to cheer her spirits.

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