Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Henna as a Cultural Catalyst

Mehndi is the art of body painting with henna, a paste created by crushing fresh or dried henna leaves and mixing the powder with lemon juice. When applied to the skin, henna leaves a red-orange “body art” image that lasts for about one to three weeks.

The practice of henna has been a part of the culture of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East for hundreds of years. Botanists believe that the henna plant first originated in Persia, spread to Egypt and was carried to India several centuries ago, perhaps by the Mughals.

There are three distinct trends. African Mehndi art is bold and large and consists of geometrically patterned angles. Asian mehndi is characterized by fine lacy lines, with floral patterns covering hands, forearms and feet. Middle-Eastern mehndi uses elaborate floral designs on hands and feet. African mehndi is black while Asian and Middle Eastern mehndi is usually reddish brown.
Until recently, henna was used in the U.S. mostly as a hair dye but now it is becoming popular as a dye for the skin as well. Mehndi is nothing if not exotic patterns and intricate designs. Used in wedding ceremonies, engagements, rites of passage occasions, bridal showers and distinctive parties, mehndi is safe, painless and redolent of the mystery of the East.

An ethnic club of the Evergreen Valley College in San Jose recently held a “henna fundraiser” to promote cultural events to reflect the diversity of the campus. Professors and student flocked to see firsthand how this ancient art was practiced. After only a few minutes of observation, a long line of eager and curious “henna lovers” formed on the stage.

Spanish teacher Sara Jacome had brought her class to show what the art of mehndi was all about. “I want Hispanic students to learn about other cultures,” she said. “They need to know that there are many cultures in the world. They need to understand the similarities and the differences and gain an appreciation of the world’s diversity.”
Three experts painted henna designs on the palms, arms and feet of patrons. The cost varied from five dollars to twenty, depending on the complexity of the pattern. To show their commitment to culture, teachers patiently sat through the $20 design while most students settled for the $5 variety. The president of the college dropped by to lend his support, sponsoring several delighted students for henna tattoos.
A rainy day at the campus was lit up by bright henna colors and the glowing smiles of students and faculty. With the decent sum of money raised, club members are already preparing to stage some fabulous cultural shows at the college in a few weeks.
America is in no danger of becoming a cultural desert anytime soon.

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