23 March - Bella Bela and the Art of Mehndi

When I started researching the art of Mehndi, I was looking for something decorative to wear on my arm. I found a piece of jewelry that satiated that search but what I was looking for was true wearable artwork. When friend Mike Eitel, wife Bela and I were emailing each other a while back, I noticed her website (www.belatees.com) on her signature. I saw beautiful artwork in her apparel and stationery. What I did not realize was those were her personal designs. In bringing to fruition this week’s task of wearing Mehndi, I stumbled upon the beautiful personal story of Bela Roongta Eitel, the artist.

Bela shared that only two years into marriage and six years into a successful legal career, she had a personal epiphany of the need to connect with her Indian ancestry. Bela was fascinated with her husband’s knowledge of her own culture, having taken a language-intensive course on Hindi and living in Nepal and Thailand. Two of her goals included learning the language and learning the art of Mehndi. With her husband’s support, she decided to leave her legal career behind to travel to Bombay, India, and immerse herself in the culture for six months.

After Bela’s experience in India, resolution came full circle when she no longer felt the need to fight her cultural identity as being one or the other. “I realized I was Western and had access to many more opportunities than I would have had if I had been raised the traditional way. There were so many things about the (Indian) culture that I loved while being there, but I really was at home here.” Bela added, “I really appreciate the freedoms and individuality here. You can still have family, still be committed, dedicated and love someone while still pursuing your own dreams without…necessarily giving up individuality, especially (for) women. I came back feeling stronger knowing who I was as an American, as a Westerner, as woman of Indian descent living in America.”

Upon her return, she and Mike started a family. Bela was also fortunate to fall back into a career focusing on one of her passions as a director at the Task Force of Domestic Violence. However, her busy schedule left no time to focus on her Mehndi. Until one day, her core group of Indian friends saw her “doodling” on a card she had made. By happenstance, this card proved her skill and garnered encouragement to pursue this craft. “I did a fundraiser for a group working with domestic violence and created a Sun design that I thought would look better on a t-shirt versus a card. I ended up creating this and an Om design, then had them printed.” Thus, came the creation of her current business “Belabela.”

Bela's affinity for Mehndi was inspired by family nostalgia. Every two to three years, she and her sister traveled to India. "The one thing we always looked forward to was getting Mehndi the day before we left. My cousin taught me the whole art. Every night we would sit in the living room and she would apply the henna. My family said I was really good at it and gave me the confidence I needed." Bela explained that Mehndi is traditionally worn for special occasions like weddings or festivals. The application for a relatively intricate design can take 20 minutes to an hour; drying time takes at least an hour. (For Bela's wedding, the application took two to three hours.) To begin, you can mix the powder form of henna with water to the consistency of pancake mix. You will also need a coneshaped bag to apply the paste. Simply take a square piece of plastic (ziploc bag) and twist to make a cone. Create an opening less than 1/4" thick, taping any necessary edges to secure the cone tightly. Some Indian stores also carry readymade paste in coneshaped bags.
For the application, as with anything, practice makes perfect. You can use patterns found online or at your local bookstore. Fortunately for Bela, she has a natural creative ability to freehand. After applying the henna, let it dry for at least 30-45 minutes. Create a mixture of 3 parts water, 1 part lemon juice and 2 tablespoons sugar. Use a cottonball to dab the skin with this mixture. This allows the acidity of the lemon to react with the henna. After it dries, you can scrape off any remaining henna using a dull knife. The longer the henna stays on the skin, the darker the color. The Mehndi should stay for 7 to 10 days.

Bela considers her “artwork of Mehndi and apparel as a beautiful fusion of my eastern heritage and western upbringing.… It is an extension of my self-expression. Fortunately, all of this was a ‘happy accident’.”
Well, congratulations on your success, Bela, and happy birthday.

Information on Bela's Mehndi workshops, artwork, apparel and stationery can be found at http://www.belatees.com/.