Tag Archives: art

Mehndi (Henna): Origins and Myth


This past weekend I was fortunate to be invited and to attend a Hindu/Catholic wedding in New York City. The bride’s family is Punjabi while the groom hails from an Irish Catholic heritage. The wedding was a perfect mash-up of eastern and western traditions. During the ceremony, the couple walked around a fire 5 times to seal their bond, and immediately afterwards turned to a catholic priest to exchange their rings. The bride wore a traditional Indian wedding dress, while the groom wore a full tux, complete with a tailcoat.

During the ceremony, I was not surprised to see the bride with her hands and her feet decorated in bright orange/ brown henna designs. Even the groom sported small areas of flowery scrolls. These designs, called Mehndi, are not new to the western wedding scene. Many women in the US and other western countries have adopted this tradition, as a matrimonial celebratory adornment. But I was curious, where did these designs come from? What does the tradition actually mean? Mehndi is beautiful, yes, but are there deeper meanings, myths, and origins?

What is Mehndi?
The Hindi word “Mehndi” is used to describe the henna plant, the act of henna painting, and the designs used in the paintings. Used for centuries for beautification and conditioning, henna is used as in celebratory rituals from North Africa, the Middle East, as well as in India. Hindus as well as Muslims have used henna as a cosmological cosmetic. Primarily used for festivities and celebrations, it is also a way of making the sacred visible, and communicating with a higher power.
Henna Plant
The henna plant is a non-remarkable small woody shrub with white flowers. Reaching 8’-10’ in height, Henna or Lawsonia inermis, is cultivated for both Mehndi and ornamental gardens in tropical and sub-tropical climates.

The practice of Mehndi is so ancient that is difficult to trace where it was originally practiced, but the one of the oldest discoveries of Mehndi is in Egypt. The Egyptians would dye their fingernails with henna as a way to become a member of polite society. It was this discovery and others that suggest that the henna plant originated in Egypt and was later brought to India. During the Mongul Era, when thousands of Hindus converted to Islam, the practice became integrated into the faith and spread to the Middle East and as far as Morocco.

It is said that Pavarti, the consort of Shiva, a powerful Hindu deity of destruction and transformation, used Mehndi to attract and please her husband. Because Shiva responded so strongly to Pavarti’s charms, Mehndi became associated with marital fortune and sexual desire. The story may also suggest a way for a woman to protect herself and her family by appeasing the gods through a cosmetic application. The henna plant is believed to have magical powers, and through its association with Shiva may be why it is used during a marriage ceremony, during a transition from separate to unified.
Shiva and Pavarti

The Art
For thousands of years the people of India have been devoted to the art of ornament and adornment. Rigorous study, experimentation, and craft are exemplified in the Mehndi designs. In India, the quest for the perfect ornament or adornment is tandem to the quest to describe the human spirit. Through these designs the spirit is made tangible. In India the beauty of a woman’s creativity is celebrated through the practice of Mehndi.

As Oracle
Mehndi is sometimes used as a way to predict the future. The color of the henna, its quality and intensity, can signal good or bad luck, the outcome of a marriage, or the love felt between two people. If a dot of henna on a man or woman’s forehead stains then the person will be fortunate. If the color of the henna on a bride’s hands is a dark orange, it means that marriage will be a long and loving one. The darkness or lightness of the color also reveals the level of protection that the gods will give the couple during their union.

There is much more to the Mehndi tradition than I can talk about here but if you are interested in learning more I suggest reading Mehndi: The Timeless Art of Henna Painting, as I have used it as a source for this article. But if you would rather do it than read about it I have found it is fairly easy to find henna cones either online or in an Indian supermarket. Some kits even come with templates of various designs for you to follow.



Anything Look Familiar?


Do you recognize these patterns? If you are thinking, “Woah…..those look like the patterns on my scarf….” then you are correct. For centuries, any printing of fabric would be done by block printing, transferring an image from block to fabric with pressure, like a stamp. As the industrial revolution did for many industries, it transformed textile printing to almost a completely automated industry. While most textile printing today is done by processes like wet printing, pigment printing, burnouts, flat-bed, rotary, and strike-offs, there are still some people that do it by hand.

These blocks from India are carved from a single piece of wood, pressed into a bed of ink, and printed with a dramatic karate chop of the hand on to a piece of fabric. The white areas are the parts that would press the ink onto the fabric while the parts between would remain inkless. The result is a mirror image of the block, transferred to the fabric. The folks at West Elm went to Rajasthan and made a beautiful video illustrating the textile printing process from the creation of pattern, the carving of the block, to the master printer demonstrating the craft.

If you are interested in trying to print yourself, I would suggest starting with a simple linoleum cut rather than jumping right into wood. Linoleum is a softer material than wood, which means you will spend less time carving and more time printing. It’s also more forgiving of mistakes so when your hand slips and takes a nick out of your perfect pattern or image, you won’t see it as much. Mary McDermott from Studio71.org does a great job of demonstrating a DIY linoleum cut printing process that you could do at home.


Hand-stitched style: All the rage!


In our age of machines, where IKEA rules and one-of-a-kind is a descriptor more often used for children’s refrigerator artwork than for home deco, it’s interesting to see that there is always an undercurrent of resistance. The insistence on handicraft in its truest sense, where every stitch really was made by a human…like the olden days.

But don’t call handicraft old fashioned! Hand-stitched is all the rage! Check out these artists, who have used their creativity to make a living, as our artisans do – one stitch at a time.

This pillow was hand-embroidered by Christine Dinsmore, of Plumed (who has been a guest on my column here). Because each pillow is handmade, Christine can replace the word “love” with a person’s name, or even the outline of your own children’s hands – you just have to send her a photo file to work with. $49 on Etsy.

Sam Gibson, from Northamptonshire, England, makes a variety of handmade “hangables,” including this wall plaque. “A lovely gift for the pretty thing in your life.” $45 on Etsy.

Check out this detail from “Empire State Building” by Peter Crawley! Crawley is another U K-based artist who has become known for creating hand-stitched illustrations with impeccable detail. And you’ll have to pay a pretty penny (er, pound) for it too: this one goes for £675.

The work of 25 year-old artist Inge Jacobsen focuses on the transformation of found images through embroidery, cutting and collage. “I started collecting fashion magazines knowing that I wanted to work with that sort of imagery, I just needed a way to intervene into them. I had found some embroidery pieces from my school days in Denmark when I was moving to university and thought that that would be a great method to use,” she says in an interview on her site. Prices vary but are also worth a pretty penny.


An Exclusive Interview with Indian Designer and Illustrator Shilo Shiv Suleman


“For Sex Workers, I Think Art Can Be Deeply Healing:”

We came across Shilo Shiv because one of our friends was shooting a documentary on her story and life. We were blown away. Shilo is wise beyond her years. At only 23, she’s given a TED talk with over 800, 000 views, illustrated a dozen children’s books (her first at the age of 16), and released her own interactive fantasy iPad app called Khoya.

In an exclusive interview with Anchal Project, she gives us a peek into her brilliant creative mind and her thoughts on design, art and magic in today’s world.

Q: How do you believe design and art can create social impact?

I think design and art impact society in two ways. The first is obvious: every campaign or social cause needs iconography around it that becomes it’s driving force through society and social media. I really felt the power of this when a poster I designed for a campaign against women in India being beaten up just because they wore jeans or drank a beer. It went completely viral and got over 70,000 people on that Facebook page.

When I was 18, I started a group called Artivism where we’d do pro bono graphic design work for NGOs we believed in. Art and its relation with the community is something that fascinates me as well. A few friends and I started a group called the Bangalore Wallflowers where we’d get together with non-artists over the simple act of painting a wall and reclaiming a community aesthetic. On one level, the wall was prettier and the neighborhood restored. On another level, however, a lot of people who were afraid of taking action, afraid of leaving a mark, afraid of paint on a blank wall could finally begin to get over their fears.

The second way is on the subtle level and I find it most interesting:

Beauty is as functional as breath. I’m starting to really feel like just creating beautiful objects that are true to us and our subtle nature is so important.  In a world where we’re driven by usability, functionality, fast food, cars and connections, I think there’s an increasing need for creators of beautiful things. We need more moments to appreciate things beyond their function, moments where beauty is both the means and the end.

Q: We work with sex workers from slum & red light districts areas. What role can magic play in marginalized and poor communities?

I was traveling through the salt deserts of Kutch district [Gujarat state of India] earlier this year. It really came as a bit of a revelation to me that in rural spaces like Kutch and Rajasthan [State of India], beauty and magic aren’t a luxury of higher classes, but is essential to life. Every house is painted, every skirt is stitched with love and care, every woman would weave her own dowry. And this was our wealth, our abundance: beautiful things. In villages, until late at night Satsangs [i.e., communal gatherings] go on, there are shadow puppets and dancers and it’s all just for the community itself. This too is magic.

When we move into cities somehow the poor/marginalized living in slums and surrounded by such a vast and vulgar display of economic disparities lose a little of that. I feel like urban setups make one constantly dissatisfied: beauty and magic become a luxury, movies are only really enjoyed if in fancy multiplexes. I find this quite sad.

I feel like we need to move back and disconnect magic and beauty from wealth and reclaim magic as a right.

Particularly in the context of sex workers though, I really think art can be deeply transforming and healing. Nothing has healed me, no “guru” has taught me, like my art has.

Q: Who is your greatest female mentor? How have they inspired you?

Apart from being one of the artistic inspirations in my life, my mother has also brought both me and my brother up on her own and through her art. I think that’s always been a pretty big encouragement to me, that a family can be run on pigment and pixel, that one can survive all hurdles as long as one’s love for one’s work keeps one going.  And that kind of trust in art and one’s love for it has really been the biggest influence.

“Let the Beauty of What you Love be What You Do,” said Rumi, and because of having my mother’s influence around me, I’ve learnt to trust that completely.

Thank you to Shilo for inspiring! Follow her incredible work:

Blog, Facebook, Twitter, TED talk


What We Love: Collage


Hollie Chastain

As we prepare for our first Art of Yoga narrative textile workshop that starts TODAY we’re falling in love all over again with collage – paper collage, fabric collage and anything and everything in between. Artists far and wide, widely recognized and little known have used this technique for ages (the impulse to collect, recombine and transform draws on something deeply human, I think). Here is a sampling of what’s possible when you grab some left over fabric or paper, thread a needle or get down and dirty with a glue stick…From the famous French artist Henri Matisse, to textile artist Darcy Falk, to the mixed media artist and educator Deborah Snider to the paper and collage artist Hollie Chastain collage can empower us all!


Henri Matisse

Deborah Snider

Darcy Falk

Darcy Falk

Japan’s “Comfort Women”


When photographer Ahn Sehong’s exhibit in the Nikon Building in Tokyo was pulled, he blamed discrimination. The subject of his controversial work? Japan’s “Comfort Women”. The name is misleading, and in fact the term “Comfort Women” is actually a practice that is distinctly disconcerting. It refers to a group of women, victims who were forcibly taken from Korea and used as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during WWII.

Sehong believes his portrait series was cancelled because the Japanese don’t want to acknowledge the women. In fact, he believes the Japanese are purposefully trying to wipe away the history of these women. Like many nations, Japan prefers to keep this part of it’s history hidden from view. The thing we have to remember is that there is a reason that unpleasant and sometimes painful memories in the past shouldn’t stay hidden. We all need to remember so as to prevent it from happening again, and clearly there are still many other countries who could do with the example.


For more information:

What we love: Art at Our Fingertips


There are few sites and online shenanigans that I come across which leave me completely awe-struck: Google Art Project is one of them.

The Project consists of high quality, high resolution images of 30, 000 works of art from over 40 countries, all in one virtual space. Leave it to Google to forge 151 art partners (top museums) from around the world and then have the technology to build this out.

Maybe you are an art lover but can’t afford (money, time, and/or energy) to go to every museum across the world to dive deep into the world that you love.

The Project lets you browse art pieces through: the artist’s name, the artwork, the type of art, the collection, the country, city, etc. Explore new art, from a certain period, or other pieces from a given/similar artist. You can also see it within the online gallery, or in museum view where it takes you to the museum to roam (zoom & pan etc.).

This is my favorite part:  make your own private and public art galleries and exhibitions! You have essentially become a bit of a pseudo art curator yourself.

There is some ramp up in terms of getting accustomed to some of the way it works in the beginning but you soon get used to it. Overall, I was amazed at the online experience. It’s just stunning.

For more online projects doing similar things, check out this compiled list.