|The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto|
This week I went to the Aga Khan Museum, a phenomenal new museum of Islamic art (a must-see for anyone visiting Toronto!) sponsored by the current leader of the Ismaili Muslim community, His Highness Shah Karim Aga Khan IV.
A 300-million dollar project (including an adjacent community centre), the museum displays thousands of artifacts from across the Islamic world, including textiles, ceramics, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, and Qur’ans.
Up until now, I had searched in vain for any example of patterned henna in Mughal art. Every painting that I could see with henna showed women with hennaed fingertips, and/or solid palms and soles. We know that patterned henna had been done in Persia, the Mughals’ homeland, since the early Middle Ages; but apparently in India the fashion was solid washes of colour, as in the famous ‘Indian Mona Lisa,’ the portrait of Bani Thani done in Kishangarh (Rajasthan) around 1740-1750.
|Radha (Bani Thani), Kishangarh, ca. 1740.|
|"Lady with Mirror" (detail), Basohli, ca. 1700,|
in the V&A, I-S.30-1980
And hence you can imagine my excitement in the Aga Khan exhibit when one of the large Mughal portraits clearly showed a woman with a henna design (admittedly a simple one) on her palm! With a sinking heart I remembered the large “No Photography” sign at the entrance to the gallery. But surely one quick snap of this picture wouldn’t count? The burly security guard eyed me with suspicion. I began to sweat.
|"A Lady Singing," Kishangarh, ca.|
1740, in the Ashmolean (LI118.31).
Thankfully the photo came out fine... And here she is! The painting, titled simply “A Lady Singing,” depicts an unnamed entertainer at the royal Kishangarh court, holding a green tanpura in one hand. It was done around 1740-1745, possibly by a Kishangarh artist named Bhavani Das. The henna, as is typical in this period, is shown in bright orange. Her fingertips have been hennaed, bordered with an additional line — it's unfortunately pretty washed out in the photo, but it was definitely clear in person, so you'll have to take my word for it.
And most importantly, her palm has a basic design, still done in South Asian communities to this day — a large circle in the centre of her palm, surrounded by smaller dots. This kind of design would probably have been done with a small stick — there's a later drawing in the V&A Museum from Rajasthan, around 1850, showing a woman painting henna on her hands with what looks like a stick or needle (although it doesn't show a design, unfortunately).
Well, even if all the stress was for nothing, it was very special to see this painting with my own eyes. There’s something charming about this simple pattern being the oldest Indian henna design yet found… In fact, I can even do it with my non-dominant hand! Of course, this isn't the end of the search — this simply means that we can push back the recorded date for henna designs in India into the Mughal period. Hopefully future research will help establish the evolution of the contemporary style of Indian mehndi art more clearly.
|Not bad for a 270-year old design...|
So if you're tired of flowers and paisleys, or your hand is cramping up after a 10-hour festival day, or you just don't feel like copying the latest Instagram craze, tell your clients you're only going to be doing *really traditional* designs and give it a try!