Sunday, May 10, 2015

The First Indian Mehndi Design? Rare Henna in a Mughal Painting

The things I do for you, dear readers! This blogpost almost got me thrown out of a museum… But such is the life of a henna researcher.

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.

In particular, I was interested in the special exhibit, “Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin” — paintings and drawings from India, 1550-1850, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) from the private collection of British abstract artist Howard Hodgkin. I suspected that there might be some interesting examples of henna… And I was right!

This is a crucial period in the history of Indian henna (and by "India" here I mean the entire Indian subcontinent, of course, not only the modern political state). It seems likely that the use of henna for body art was introduced to India by the Mughals, a Persianate dynasty that entered India in 1526; and we know that by the 20th century henna art was being done in India in patterns — so the origins of Indian henna patterns must lie somewhere in between! But when? Indian mehndi art is one of the most well-known traditions of henna art today — but as a historian, I'd love to know how far back we can trace it.

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.

In my previous post on the subject, I had written: “Mughal-era paintings from India often depict women with hennaed hands and feet, but unlike Persian paintings the henna is never shown in designs, but always dipped fingertips or solid palms and feet, as far as I have seen. This doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t doing designs — but if they were, they didn’t depict them.”

"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.

I spent twenty minutes in front of that painting, waiting for the security guard to move to another part of the gallery. Finally, he turned to walk towards the other end and I seized the opportunity! Worried that another museum guest might call me out, I quickly pulled out my phone, snapped a clandestine shot, hoped that it wasn’t too blurry, and ran (calmly and discretely, of course) to rejoin my friends.

"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).

It may not look like much, but it’s very exciting — the oldest visual depiction of henna designs in Indian art! We can now say confidently that the art of mehndi patterns in India dates to the Mughal period, at least to the mid-18th century. If this one painting exists, then there may be others! There’s much more to learn about the evolution of Indian henna design, and hopefully more paintings will come to light like this one. Definitely worth risking the wrath of museum security...

Imagine my surprise and frustration, then, when I got home and discovered that the painting had been available online this whole time! Not only is it featured on the Ashmolean website, it’s also even in the Wikipedia page for the Ashmolean Museum! Arg.

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!


HennaArt said...

LOVE that you went to the Aga Khan Museum! Love that the Aga Khan Museum not only shows Islamic history, but also shows culture and society within it's collection!

michael said...

Truly, my friend, you are the Indiana Jones of the history of henna depictions in Mughal art.

Noam Sienna said...

Haha Michael — with less rolling-under-doors and fewer fedoras, as it turns out. And I'm still waiting for my wildly successful film franchise.

holikarang said...

What makes me always doubtful with historical traces in Indian art is that what it's depicted on women cannot be told from what is called alta and used to be a natural red dye (nowadays chemical unfortunately). The use of alta is much more ancient in India and was spread around the subcontinent unlike mehndi, if I am not mistaken (I am thinking of dancers who nowadays still use alta, but I will need to explore pictures of devadasis from the past to see). It has a common origin with the use of henna I believe as it protects the energy doors of the body (hands and feet), this is why they are used in women rites of passage, because it is the time when women are connected to their fertility and are considered more 'impure' in many ancient cultures, thus they need more protection (for them and for others). The color is similar as red is the color of the pure sacrifice blood from which they probably derive, but alta designs as the one you describe, relate more to the concept of chakras as in the Indian culture rather than islamic. It's a very simple design, but is is also clearly related to that meanning. Sometimes older women at weddings ask me this same designs as you say. For Induism, there are smaller chakras on the hands and feet and they correspond to the part of the hands and feet colored in alta. There are pranic practices by yogis to preserve the energy in the body that prescrie to keep palms and soles connected in order not to let the energy flow outside. The use of mehndi inherited from the Persian Mughals was influenced by the use of alta in India and thus in paintings it is impossible to tell one from the other. Of course with mehndi it is easier to have finer designs, but the Indian designs have kept the focus on palms and fingers from this reason.