Straight From My Art – Henna Designing

As far as I can remember, I always loved applying henna on my hands. I enjoy the cool tingling on my palms that settles as the henna dries, absorbing your body heat and cooling you down. Henna also has skin healing properties and is great even for cracked heels.

At its most basic version, in South India we apply a very simple henna design on our hands that doesn’t need much designing work. A paste is prepared from henna powder or fresh henna leaves. A few drops of eucalyptus oil and clove oil can be added to further enhance the natural henna dye colour. Leave it for a couple of hours and then apply a large circle on your palm surrounded by smaller dots. Cover the tops of your fingers as well with the paste. Leave it on until it completely dries up and then try to avoid water on your hands for the next few hours (one of the reasons I try to do this always late in the evenings so the henna dye has time to develop while I sleep). The result is beautiful and colourful palms and feet adorned with the natural dye from the henna that will fade off in a few days.

My earliest and fondest memory of henna is my father applying henna on his own palm for every one of our weddings. He would apply one huge circle on his left palm and that was it. The next day he would preen around everyone showing off the deep colour of the henna, a sign that your spouse loves you very much!

My journey into more intricate henna tattoos began after my marriage. I found another equally enthusiastic person when it came to henna designs, my mother-in-law. Most importantly, she was happy to offer her palms to practice on. Until you get the hang of it, your hands tend to shiver while trying to draw a design on anyone’s palm and it takes a few attempts before you treat a henna cone like an extension of your fingers, quite like a pen or pencil and then pure poetry flows!

A henna cone is just that, a plastic cone into which henna paste is filled up. It can be held at a position that is comfortable to you where your hand is balanced and you can draw much like if you were holding a pen or pencil. The dye starts colouring the area you are drawing on pretty quickly, so if you make a mistake you need to act quickly and erase it with a clean cone tip.

When buying a henna cone, just make sure it is from a reputable salon and does not contain artificial chemicals that help to enhance colour. These can harm your skin greatly and some can even be carcinogenic in nature. If willing to take a little effort, one can even make a henna cone at home.

  1. Fashion a long cone from a square piece of clear plastic (like half a ziploc bag) held in place by tapes so it doesn’t leak out the henna paste
  2. Take some henna powder, mix it with water into a thick paste, it should be of a consistency that easily flows from the cone as you draw your design but only when you apply a little pressure
  3. You can add a couple of drops of eucalyptus and clove oil when preparing this mixture but it is optional
  4. Cover and keep for 6-8 hours, then fill it up into the prepared cone
  5. Test the cone flow and if required snip a little bit off the tapering end to get the right thickness and flow rate

Over the years, I’ve had amazing life experiences thanks to my interest in drawing henna designs.

I applied bridal henna for our housemaid back home for her wedding. I was really grateful to be visiting at the time and I tried to make it as special as I could.

One of the sweetest memories I have is from 2005 when my mother agreed to sit still for a whole hour and a half (a mean feat, she was not one to sit still for any length of time) while I applied henna on her hands. She even happily let me feed her dinner so she could let her hands be and allow the henna to dry well.

In 2009, my in-laws decided to move into a beautiful retirement village in South India. Every time I want to feel rejuvenated, I visit this place. Over the several years they’ve been there, I have wonderful memories of applying henna for the many lovely elderly ladies who live there. I would set shop on the stone benches outside the prayer hall and a steady stream of ladies would come over and have henna applied on their hands. My current record is 30 hands in a single day!

In 2017, my in-laws celebrated my father-in-laws Sathabhishekam, a ceremony that marks a rite of passage in life when someone turns 80. As per our traditions, a couple gets married again when the husband turns 60, and then again when the husband turns 80 (yes, to each other). While we hired professionals to apply henna to all the guests, I took it upon myself to apply bridal henna for my mother-in-law. As my number one customer and cheerleader, I felt I had to be the one.

A few years ago at work, I suggested one of the events for an Onam celebration at work be henna designs. I even made a catalog of simple designs that my “customers” could choose from. The most amazing thing though was that more men than women flocked to my table and I landed up doing tattoos or scorpions and a few other zodiac signs, one tattoo of Gru and tattoos of one of my colleague’s childrens’ names on his arms in Arabic calligraphy.

This year, I applied henna to a bunch of kids for Diwali and it was super fun!

Every experience has been fulfilling, soul-satisfying and best of all, comes with that feeling of having made someone else’s day. That I think is the best part for me. When I see people admiring the tattoos I’ve drawn on their hands, and smiling at the effect, that simply makes my day! The back ache comes much later.

Here are a few photos of my henna journey over the years. Hope you enjoy them, and they inspire you to give it a try as well!

Author’s Note: Featured Image was taken by my very talented friend Darshana. Catch her brilliant shots at her Insta profile here.

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