Mangala Bühler-Rose has been fascinated by the henna designs called mehndisince she was a little girl watching her grandmother use it to color her hair. In 1992, she began studying yoga and yoga philosophy and brought the art forms of bhakti, such as North Indian mehndi, Odissi Dance and rangoli flower design together as she pursued her studies in ashrams across the United States and India.
These days, the half-Persian, half- American gentle bhakti artist has settled in downtown Manhattan where she adorns her clients with artful designs that embrace their wants, needs and hopes. Combined with her background in counseling and social work, there is an aspect of therapeutic talking that enables her to create designs that are creative and symbolic for each individual. Lisa Dawn Angerame sat down with Mangala to find out more about it.
Lisa Dawn Angerame: What is mehndi?
Mangala Bühler-Rose: The term, mehndi, comes from the Sanskrit mendhikā, which refers to Lawsonia inermis, also known as the henna plant. Texts from Asia and Africa refer to Lawsonia’s many uses including medicinal, religious, and cosmetic. Nowadays it is common to use the term to refer to several different things: the plant itself, the paste made from its leaves, the practice of applying it, and the resulting designs.
But for me, mehndi is a language. It is a medium I use to communicate, a way of reinforcing light, goodness, beauty, growth, and transformation. Before I begin a design, I pause for a moment to request Divine guidance to reinforce for my client what she needs to support her growth.
LDA: How are mehndi and bhakti related?
MBR: Bhakti yoga is a process of connecting with Divinity, of embracing what I see as my purpose and deepest need: to experience and act in lasting love. For this love to take root, I allow my heart to be cultivated by remembrance and expressions of selflessness, beauty, joy, and artistry. These themes pervademehndi traditions and exchanges, augmenting my bhakti practice.
LDA: How does the henna work?
MBR: Henna leaves contain a reddish dye and are ground into a fine powder, sifted, and combined with other ingredients to assist in extracting the dye from the leaves, a process called dye-release. The paste is applied to clean skin and permanently stains the stratum corneum, the outmost layer of skin.
LDA: How long does it last?
MBR: Henna stains can last anywhere from one week to one month. The length depends on several factors and the responsibility of ensuring a good stain is shared between artist and client. I work hard to ensure I use a fresh, potent paste, that the skin is clean and dry before application, and to inform my clients of aftercare guidelines. The rest is the client’s responsibility. For example, keeping water off the design for the first 24 hours makes a significant difference in how long the stain will last. Additionally, exposure to chlorine or exfoliants will speed up fading of a design.
LDA: What is the role of mehndi in India?
MBR: I spend a lot of time there and have found that mehndi plays a strong social role. While mehndi is applied at various times including festivals and holidays, it is famous for its use at times of transition, especially for weddings. At such momentous occasions in an individual’s life, she (or he) literally cannot lift a finger and is prompted to embrace community, stillness, and beauty. Just before the wedding, all of the women partake in a festive ceremony, a joyous coming together of the bride's female relatives and friends during which all are adorned with henna. The bride usually gets the most intricate designs. On this night, she is reminded of her community, her support, and her allegiances. On this night, she is still, and she must accept the support of her companions through her transition. The specifics of the ceremonies involving henna vary according to local customs, but the themes of community, stillness, dependence, and support are shared.
LDA: How do you translate the rituals and traditions of India into the contemporary New York City yoga culture?
MBR: Human needs for love, peace, joy, beauty, community and support are shared by New Yorkers and Rajasthan-walis alike. While I am offering mehndi, I experience a profound sense of calm and often clients mention that it is mutual. Additionally, so much of the symbolism and processes of mehndi involve love, affection, transcendence, and Divinity, so the exchange becomes a kind of meditative experience, exactly what New Yorkers need!
LDA: What counseling and social work did you do that relates to creating designs for your clients?
MBR: I worked with young children with, or at risk for, developmental delays and their families. Part of my work was fostering successful management of stress-related behaviors.
As a social work intern, I worked at a university integrative oncology center, where relaxation techniques, including meditation, were offered as complementary therapies for people undergoing conventional treatment.
In each of these roles, I observed stated need for, and benefits of care, self-regulation, reflection and support during times of stress. Throughout history, people have devised ingenious ways to nourish these and mitigate unwanted byproducts of challenges and responses. Mehndi traditions are one way of doing it that has always been familiar and attractive to me.
When doing social work, I strived to build rapport with clients, to open doors, to listen, and to invite my clients to explore possibilities. To accomplish these, I found I needed to be present and I needed to be still at times. For me, doing mehndi fosters both.
LDA: Are there traditional designs or do you create your own?
MBR: I am fascinated by the symbols used in what has been referred to as “old mehndi” of Rajasthan, India, including those found in nature (e.g. sun, water, leaves, animals, fruits, etc.) and those associated with ceremonies (e.g. sacred water pots, yantras, etc.). I incorporate these symbols into my own designs a lot. Something like the sun, representing light, nourishment, growth, warmth, and light, appeals to me and I often find it useful for those who I adorn.
I am always studying mehndi designs. In India this year, I spent my days standing near a temple exit photographing lots of mehndi, so I could copy and learn for my own practice. But for clients, I construct my own. Each client is unique and I like to allow the design to unfold in a way that best suits each individual.
LDA: What do the designs mean?
MBR: Designs have myriad meanings, depending on whom you ask. Dots for example, have been likened to seeds, bijani, representing fertility, new life, and growth. Two triangles have been associated with masculine and feminine and are in balance when they appear together as in the Star of David. Circles are sometimes drawn as the sun, conveying healing, warmth, life, and growth. Sometimes circles are drawn as a discus, chakra, symbolizing triumph of goodness and destruction of undesirable elements. Often, symbols of love, like the peacock or initials of the groom or bride, are hidden in wedding designs. I have also seen symbols associated with leisure, like a pre-chess game board, or prosperity, like watches and rings.