EL CENTRO — Three days before an East Indian wedding ceremony in Los Angeles, California, it is henna night at a residential home in El Centro.
Several women sat on the living room floor which was covered with bright, cushioned multicolored pillows strewn about, fashioned to lean or sit on for long periods of time. Henna artists and the women sat, sometimes in silence, watching the progress of an elaborate pattern emerging on their hands.
Henna, or “Mehndi” in the Hindi language, is commonly practiced for festivities such as weddings, according to Brawley resident Mona Goyal. For married women, henna is a symbol of a happy marriage and a happy married life. It is also practiced among younger girls and single women.
Goyal said many women in India knows how to apply henna. “It is not very difficult. It’s pretty common. Some artists are better than others.”
The length of waiting for completion of a henna design depends on a number of variables. For example, the surface area of the hand or the feet, the ability of the artist and the design patterns. Goyal said some brides and grooms in India will have each other’s face henna tattooed on each other’s hand.
Henna artist Nirali sat on one side of the cushioned floor. She was working on the hands of Mahi Goyal, the eleven-year-old daughter of Mona Goyal.
“Henna is a paste. After it dries, it is like tattoos on your skin and leaves a very pretty design. And it stays for two weeks depending on how long you leave it. And after you rub it off, you should not wash your hands immediately after its taken off, or else the color becomes lighter,” young Mahi explained.
Her mother said adding a mixture of lemon juice and sugar will make the dye darker on the skin. A bowl of this mixture was available in the kitchen.
“You can’t really touch anything else or it would smear. You just wait. And you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t involve your hands. You just wait until it dries and you take it off,” added Mahi.
Since henna ink dries in 3-5 hours, women keep their hands from touching any surface. As a result, help is needed where hands are needed. One woman used a spoon to feed her friend at dinner time. Another had her husband drive her car.
But for Mahi, it was a relief. “We don’t have to do any work or any homework,” she said with a giggle.
John Smerdon is an artist who grew up in Brawley who works mostly with acrylic. He said he was introduced to henna tattoos by his friend Juhi Goyal years ago. Since then, he had practiced on his skin as well as on friends these past eight years. This evenings’ wedding party is his first to practice henna on many women at one time.
Many of his designs, Smerdon said, were from websites which he committed to memory to replicate them. “I give it a cohesive look that is more natural and flowing. It’s really kind of a privilege to have a different culture allow me to come in and embrace it and influence my art.”
In time, the henna paste will have left a deep orange dye on hands for the wedding celebration in Los Angeles. It is a happy symbol of celebration. And it shows even as they greet each other with their hands.