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A Marriage to Dye For 

If someone you know is getting married this spring, she's probably already thought about flowers, music, and a white tiered confection complete with plastic fountains and miniature Doric columns, and a lilliputian bride and groom perched atop. But others are adding a unique touch to their celebration by adopting a more ancient tradition -- that of mehndi, a reddish-brown temporary tattoo that lasts for several weeks and is a key part of bridal adornment among Hindus and Muslims.

"When I came to the United States 15 years ago, a lot of Indian brides didn't have anyone to do their mehndi," says Clevelander Virag Parikh, who won mehndi contests in her native India and now operates Equinox Hair and Nails in North Olmsted. She has been performing the art professionally and personally ever since. "I love sharing the brides' excitement when I do mehndi for them."

"Mehndi" comes from the Hindi word meaning "henna," the plant that is dried, crushed, and mixed into a paste for application to the skin to decorate parts of the body (usually the feet and hands) with elaborate designs that temporarily dye the skin. Traditionally practiced by women in North Africa, India, and the Middle East, the art is commonly associated with marriage and romantic love, and is a big part of the wedding preparations.

"It typically takes me four to five hours to do mehndi for a bride," Parikh explains, noting that brides usually have both their hands and feet done. "For the bride's relatives, 15 or 20 minutes are all I need, because their designs are less elaborate."

The time-consuming process begins with the area to be painted being exfoliated with a cloth or loofah, after which the artist applies the aromatic henna paste, either through a little plastic squeeze bottle or a small flexible cone. The artist then improvises to create original designs while incorporating ancient symbols, like peacocks.

The drying process, in which the paste blackens and hardens, can take several hours. If you're having both hands done, you'll want to enlist a friend to open doors and drive you home -- and unless you picked a very close friend, it's a good idea to lay off the beverages beforehand. Once the henna dries, a sugar-lemon juice solution is dabbed on the entire design to deepen the color. After that, the dried henna is gently buffed off the skin.

But mehndi isn't just for weddings anymore. "At the salon where I do mehndi, I have a lot of non-Asian women clients," says Parikh, who estimates that 50 percent of her summertime clientele is American. "Even men and high school boys have it done -- especially when they're about to go away on vacation. People are having it done all over the body, but upper arms and backs are requested a lot. I've even done bellies."

Novices should note that the richness of color in the final design depends largely on the area to be painted. The more body heat in an area, the darker the image's color will be. Because of this, henna stains deepest on the palms of the hands. Areas of thin skin that exfoliate quickly -- like the face, neck, and shoulders -- don't usually get a deep color.

And as with all fine art, you pay for what you get. "One hand costs about 15 to 20 dollars, depending on the varying degrees of simplicity of the design," says Parikh. A bride's mehndi usually commands up to $150. If you're on a tight budget and are an experimentalist, you can always try doing mehndi yourself at home with an inexpensive kit available at most Indian grocery stores, beauty supply stores, and even some large discount drug stores.

If only the wedding itself were as relatively easy and painless to pull off as the mehndi -- though let's hope the marriage doesn't fade with the body art after the honeymoon.

Virag Parikh can be reached at Equinox Hair and Nails, 26120 Lorain Road in North Olmsted (440-779-5500), or by e-mail at vpmehndi@aol.com.

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