India- Tribal traditions vs. pop culture

IMG_4108Tattoos have ancient roots embedded deeply in Indian culture. Mehndi, commonly known as Henna, is a form of temporary body art that began centuries ago and typically lasts only a month. While we now may see these intricate patterns as synonymous with the onset of Coachella or Glastonbury, they were usually reserved for festive celebrations of marriage, religious occasions and ceremonies. However the nature of its practice has come under threat in recent years.

The henna plant, also known as Mehndi in Hindu and Urdu, is indigenous to much of Asia and is used as a temporary ink in the ritualistic application of these intricate patterns. The swirling geometry is traditionally applied to the hands and feet, yet a decreasing supply of traditional Mehndi artists is contributing to the recent degradation of its popularity. As more and more people are drawn to the urban centres of India, maintaining the tradition has had to compete against its market ready counterparts of mass-produced and professionally prepared D-I-Y henna cones. Only in rural areas is the practice of grinding henna leaves with oil by stones preserved.

It is not just availability of traditional artists that is driving the design change, but the influential role that pop culture is beginning to play. Like a dialect, different regional patterns of tracery have developed across India, as well as variations that appear in neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan. Each custom has a slightly different ethos and inspiration, with traditional Indian designs being representations of the sun. Mehndi’s interaction with a new urban environment is perhaps just another variant in this way- drawing on the media for inspiration rather than nature.

Recent years in India have seen a growing demand for realistic tattoos, of monuments or animals, in addition to the rising importance of personal touches and tweaks into the design. Instead of simply going for the classic Mehndi design of your region, people now look to Google for inspiration. When given the choice, the traditional patterns usually used in Mehndi applications rarely come first. The pressing presence of pop culture combined with globalisation has seen cultural relevance and personalisation over take community orientated artistic expression.

This is nothing new in Europe or America, where no traditional body art practice existed before the onset of permanent tattoos. However by joining the dwindling of the temporary, traditional Mehndi practise to the increasing demand for permanent, personalised tattoos, one thing is apparent: ease of access and customisation come up trumps.