The Art (and Medicine) of Henna
When discussing henna, it’s hard not to start from the beginning. By that I mean the beginning of recorded history.
It was somewhere back in the Bronze Age (3000-2000 B.C.E.), that early humans first realized that grinding the leaves of the henna plant (Lawsonia inermis), then combining the powder with a mild acid like lemon juice or tea would produce a dye that could safely stain everything from silk and leather to skin and hair.
Fast forward about five thousand years. Applying henna to skin in intricate patterns has become one of the oldest, and most beautiful, art forms known to our species. And Neeta Sharma has become one of the most talented and creative practitioners of the ancient art alive today.
Neeta has been practicing henna or mehndi (the traditional name for the art) for more than 25 years. From her childhood in Mumbai, India, to her professional stints in Australia and Canada and finally to her current home in the Central Valley, Neeta has shared her skills at countless bridal parties, events, festivals and private gatherings.
Sharma, whose professional training is in social work, has been a full time henna artist since 2010. “It was always my dream to do henna full time,” says Neeta. “Henna has always been my stress reliever. When I was doing social work, being able to go from stressful situations [in my professional life] to a wedding party where everyone is happy really helped keep me grounded.”
According to Neeta, she always tries to ensure that every client—who are primarily brides—gets something unique that speaks to her. “I love to customize and do what the bride wants. I look for something that is a piece of who they are, what their marriage signifies to them, what’s important to them. I’ve had brides who send me their wedding outfit pictures and say ‘I love my outfit, I want some part of it designed in my henna.’ Recently I had a bride whose proposal was very important to her. It was very romantic. They went for a hike somewhere and he proposed to her on top of a mountain. She wanted that somehow in her henna and I was able to do that.”
It’s this creativity in her offerings that sets Neeta apart, and which has made her a legend in the henna community. In fact, readers of Maharani Weddings, a popular online magazine, recently named Neeta the best bridal henna artist in the United States, based in part on her ability to infuse traditional patterns with modern touches and unique images.
Neeta says that to her henna is more than an art form. Part of the tradition is henna’s cooling properties. “That's how henna was discovered,” adds Neeta. “People would traditionally apply it to the soles of their feet and palms of their hands, men would apply it beards and hair. It was kind of like a personal air conditioning because it would really cool down the body. So when I’m doing the palms of brides, I’m often helping cool and calm her [in a stressful time] by applying henna.”
“Part of being a henna artist is trying to educate people and point them the right way,” adds Neeta, before describing the horrific repercussions of so called “Black Henna,” a form of dye that is erroneously associated with the ancient art. Black Henna can be any number of substances, many of which include paraphenylendiamine (PPD), a carcinogenic and poisonous ingredient which has been banned in a number of countries and has elicited numerous warnings from the FDA. “Everything about the henna I and many other henna artists do is natural. It’s from a natural plant and henna actually has a lot of healing properties to it. Black henna is dangerous. It can cause kidney and liver damage, poisoning and, in extreme cases, people have died from it.”
Beyond simply avoiding practitioners who use Black Henna, Neeta suggests that anyone interested in hiring a henna artist should do their research. “It’s good to meet up with the artist and get a sample done to ensure that they can do what they promise. Come wedding day, if the henna artist isn’t what they say they are, it could ruin a bride’s day.”