A Tradition of Henna ArtNeeta Sharma
by Jamie Menaker
Henna is a plant and also an Indian tradition of staining intricate designs on the body. The henna leaf, when broken down and mixed into a paste, is used for its ability to dye the skin. While the plant itself has been in existence for centuries, the traditions and folklore behind henna, or mehndi, run almost as deep. Neeta Sharma has been decorating brides with henna for twenty-two years, and has brought her craft to San Joaquin.
Born and raised in India, Sharma was surrounded by henna during her childhood and became enamored with the ancient art. She taught herself the practice of henna, trying different styles, with no shortage of friends in India willing to let her sample henna designs on their skin. Through moves to Australia and Canada, she still brought the art with her, trying to keep up her henna designs as much as possible on anyone that was willing.
"I was in Australia in 1996, when the Madonna ["Frozen"] video came out," says Sharma. "She was wearing henna on her hands, and all the sudden it went from a little-known art form outside of India to international recognition. For two years in Australia I got to teach this art to a lot people, and even got interviewed by the media out there."
Today, Sharma is one of the most in-demand henna artists for brides in San Joaquin (and really all over California), and also does her art at in-home henna parties, bridal and baby showers, festivals, and more. She's been asked to bless baby bellies with her henna designs, and adorn entire bridal parties-including the groom and his attendants.
"In our [Indian] culture, weddings are such a joyful occasion, lasting for days with happiness everywhere," says Sharma. "In most cases, henna is the first ceremony of the wedding celebration. I had a bride's father say to me at one point, 'You must feel so good, you kick off the whole wedding, and play such a big part with the bride wearing henna through the rest of the festivities.'"
Sharma explains that henna is part of the 16 adornments a bride needs to prepare for her wedding day-once the henna is on, the bride can't do any work, she is just meant to relax and enjoy the festivities. Shbelieves in giving each bride a work of art that's her own, and meets with the lady-of-the-day before the wedding to create a design. She asks what the bride does and doesn't want in her henna, and tries to incorporate as much symbolism as possible, ranging from paisley (good luck) to peacocks (love and passion) and flowers (new beginnings). Even the groom's name is worked somewhere into the design-according to tradition, if he can't find his name, the bride has earned herself a present.
Whether applying henna on brides for their wedding day or on children at festivals, the henna process is the same. Sharma gets her finely ground henna powder from India, which is then mixed with lemon juice, sugar, water, and essential oils. The mixture sits for a full day so the dye can release from the powder. In tubes made for the henna paste-which very nearly resemble cake frosting piping bags-Sharma applies the design to the body free-hand with her steady artist's hands.
Bridal designs can take anywhere from an hour and a half to six hours, while other designs done from one of Sharma's pre-designed patterns take much shorter. For more intricate henna, Sharma will start with the palms of the hands and then move to the feet while the hands are drying. When the henna paste is dry, more lemon juice and sugar are applied to help seal the dye into the skin. The henna is left on for a minimum of six hours, and then scraped off-not washed off-to let more color sink into the skin. Henna designs last two to three weeks on the body.
"Henna has become so popular now that there are gatherings to celebrate the art all over the U.S.," says Sharma. "I teach the Indian style that I am good at, but there are other styles-Moroccan, Turkish, Arab. At these events, it's all about getting inspired by other artists and other styles of henna."
Sharma has also authored eight books of henna patterns, both traditional and modern: pregnant bellies, matching designs that can be done on both sides for hands and feet, patterns for weddings guests, and more. She also teaches the ancient art at conferences and Modesto Junior College.
For more information: www.mehndidesigner.com