This Eid ul Fitr was the second time the festivities were held under a strict lockdown due to the global pandemic. My mom and I were once again tasked with applying Mehendi on each other’s hands the night before Eid. A task we would have – under ordinary circumstances – delegated to someone far more skilled.
The first step was choosing a design. Since neither of us happened to be seasoned experts in applying Mehendi (my mom initially struggled with how to hold the henna cone), we resorted to scrolling through the Instagram Mehendi tag, waiting for inspiration to strike. We were immediately bombarded with a flurry of designs – Arabic Mehendi, different colors, glitter, stamps, stickers, and paisleys.
As midnight drew near, we sat in our living room, combing through endless content and rejecting each other’s picks. In the midst of all this, I pulled up Dr. Azra’s Instagram account. For those unfamiliar with her work, Dr. Azra has a verified Instagram platform of over 126,000 followers where she is most known for her ‘minimalist Mehendi art’, a phrase that many traditionalists would reckon to be an oxymoron.
This incredible demand for more of her work prompted the Mehendi artist to start her own brand of henna cones and stencils. Her artwork has been featured in exhibitions and renowned publications including Vogue and Allure, and she has even hosted workshops where she teaches the unique, often geometric, brand of Mehendi designs that have become synonymous with her name. She is biannually tagged in thousands of ‘inspired by @dr.azra’ Instagram stories before both Eids.
Needless to say, I’m a huge fan. My mom? Not so much.
Not only did my mom make a face at every design of Dr. Azra’s when I tried to coax her into imitating her designs, but she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to have simple geometric patterns and lines temporarily tattooed onto their hands. Meanwhile, I found myself steering clear of the intricate designs that came up with images of fully decked-out brides (I had pretty realistic expectations of my Mehendi design abilities) and felt drawn to the more simplistic variants of Mehendi designs.
So, instead of drawing the poor-man’s-version of Arabic Mehendi or a chess-board imprint on our hands, we met in the middle and settled on a simple floral design.
Mehendi has been around for centuries, with its earliest use documented in Egypt where it was used to nourish hair and stain fingernails. It was then adopted by people in India (the subcontinent, not the present-day political state) and used for body art. Mehendi has even become synonymous with South Asian wedding ceremonies, where henna is applied to the hands and sometimes the feet of the bride pre-wedding reception. It is also a big part of chand raat (moon night) culture for Muslims, which is the name given to the night before Eid, when most of the prep for the festivities of the following day take place.
However, the chand raat experience with my mom did leave me wondering why our tastes regarding a centuries-old tradition happen to be so diametrically opposed. A reason I settled on was how desi creatives of recent times have been successful in reclaiming parts of their culture they were largely ostracized for growing up.
I remember being told to scrub my hands clean to fade the Mehendi faster after returning to school from our Eid break. This happened whilst living in Pakistan, when I attended a school where the majority of the population were Muslims who celebrated Eid. Still, we were taught that something so ingrained in our culture was not part of our uniform. We have been told henna tattoos look unprofessional, or mocked for how Mehendi smells. This has more to do with how we equate whiteness to professionalism and propriety than with anything wrong on our part. Despite how often I get made fun of for linking everything back to colonization, this too is derivative of it.
Nowadays, Mehendi has become far more mainstream and garnered the white-people-stamp-of-approval. I’ve scrolled past videos of natural redheads applying henna to their hair for vibrancy and the added health benefits (known to us of course, for centuries), TikTok influencers showing us how to use henna cones to draw on fake freckles and temporary tattoos, with their videos raking in hundreds of thousands of views.
In reclaiming our culture, desi creatives brought forth a new era of Mehendi, essentially breathing new life into a tradition that had otherwise seen little innovation over the past couple of decades. This trend of minimalist Mehendi is an act of defiance and rebellion, just as much as it is one of celebration.
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