Red Stain of Bewitching Beauty
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN. Sept.
10 -- Amber Nicosia's idea of a perfect Saturday night is to invite
over two or three of her girlfriends, mix a greenish powder with some
lemon juice, black tea and eucalyptus oil, and paint the resulting
mud on each others' bodies in psychedelic sunbursts, creeping vines,
intricate labyrinths, paisley patterns, geckoes, stars, moons, and
"It's a bonding
thing," says Nicosia, a recent graduate of Rochester Technical
and Community College. "The designs are beautiful, but
the important thing is being together."
This ritual, odd
as it may sound, is increasingly popular in southeastern Minnesota,
where hundreds of women have taken up the ancient art of mehndi, or
henna body painting, with a passion.
Once practiced only
at Indian weddings and festivals and during Muslim celebrations such
as Eid, which breaks the fast of Ramadan, mehndi in our community is
rapidly being adapted into such distinctive
as Halloween, New Year's Day, the Fourth of July, and the Olmsted County
Fair, which had a bustling mehndi booth this year.
There is no more
ardent a group of new henna practitioners than teenage girls.
Carly Blazing, an
eighth grader at Kellogg, has had several mehndi done by friends over
it's fun," she says. "It's like a tattoo but it's
not permanent, if your Mom won't let you get a tattoo."
mom, Vicki Blazing, has had a couple of henna paintings done on herself,
both for beauty and meaning. "It's not just a tattoo," she
says. "It marks an event with some symbolism."
The orange-red stain
of the henna paintings stays on the skin for two to four weeks, depending
on how much was initially applied and how much you shower or wash your
hands. The henna paste is applied with a tiny "carrot bag," like
a frosting bag, and is worn until it dries and flakes off.
" It looks like
goose poop when you first put it on," explains Vinisha Bhatia,
a Century High School student who immigrated to Rochester from India
four years ago and made many of her new friends in Rochester by painting
them with henna.
The hypnotic spell
of henna designs is legendary. There is archeological evidence of henna
at Neolithic sites, circa 9,000 B.C., and paintings on pottery, fresco,
fabric, and paper from virtually all of the ancient Middle Eastern,
northern African, and Indian civilizations show elaborate henna designs
used by women at weddings and festivals.
patterns worn by Indian women at weddings, and the bolder floral designs
of Arabic mehndi, are the two most popular mehndi styles. But Minnesota
henna artists like Lisa O'Hanlon, who does dozens of henna paintings
each week for customers at Ananke Designs in Rochester, are rapidly
morphing those two traditional forms into new directions with New Age
moons and suns and their own personal designs.
customer is a 45-year-old local woman with a last name like Johnson,
Smith, or Miller, she says. They often come in with friends, or sometimes
with a sister or daughter, to have the designs done together. The pain
management unit at the Mayo Clinic sometimes sends customers who want
a symbol representing "Courage" or "Patience" painted
on. Other women buy kits to use at henna parties.
are like candle parties or Tupperware parties only more so," O'Hanlon
says. "At a henna party you take off your shirt and sit
there in your bra, getting stuff drawn on you by your best
very personal and it can be a very spiritual thing."
Very un-guy like, for sure. Most men don't have the patience for henna, O'Hanlon
says. They prefer permanent tattoos with the painful but once-and-it's-over
rite of passage application. Or they want only "bitchin''" henna
designs, like barbed wire around the biceps, which she won't do.
In the history of
henna, it was ever thus. In my research, I could find only one solid
reference to men using henna painting. That was Indian warriors who
dipped their hands in henna before they went off to war -- as a reminder
of their wives who were waiting for them back home.
On her Web site,
O'Hanlon quotes a writer, Catherine Cartwright Jones, who says that
women are attracted to henna "to appreciate each other's newness,
awe, experience, terror, sexuality, and blood-borne responsibility
for the continuation of humanity."
her own goals as a henna artist in more bluntly Midwestern terms: "I
want you to get a dark and exciting stain every time!"
Copyright @ 2003
The McGill Report