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An Artist Who Paints Brides With Elaborate Henna Designs



Neha Assar can spend up to three hours holding a bride’s hands before a wedding. She will also devote three hours to holding her feet. Ms. Assar is a henna artist specializing in mehndi, the traditional painting that Indian brides undergo for their wedding day.

Typically, the elaborate henna design will swirl from a bride’s fingertips to her forearm, and from the tips of her toes to mid-calf. The groom’s name is hidden somewhere in the design for him to find on their wedding night—a task Ms. Assar enjoys making as difficult as possible, she says.

The 35-year-old mother of two mostly paints brides in her native Los Angeles and around California. She has also traveled as far as Texas, New York, Canada and Mexico. She says she does 80 to 100 events a year.

Her henna kit is a professional heat-safe cosmetics toolbox. She paints freehand using tubes of henna paste, which is a mixture of dried henna leaves and natural oils that she orders from Hyderabad, India. She packs eight tubes for a big wedding party. She also packs glitter and rhinestones to adorn her designs.

Bridal henna is popular throughout South Asia and in some Middle Eastern and North African countries, and Ms. Assar says she takes her inspiration from Rajasthani art. She has also learned designs from Pakistani and Arabic henna traditions.

A henna party for the bride’s family and close friends usually takes place two days before a wedding. Painting a bride can take four to eight hours, she says. The longer the paste stays on the skin, the darker the pigment becomes. Ms. Assar brings a spray bottle of lemon and sugar water, or hair spray, which she spritzes over her work as it dries to prevent the paste from flaking off. The henna stain usually starts out orange and deepens overnight to burgundy. It fades gradually over the next few weeks.

The other women at the party will also get henna art, usually simpler designs on a hand or arm. Ms. Assar says she can whip out 15 designs in an hour. If it is a big event—she has done mehndi parties for 400 people—she will bring a few assistants.

When Ms. Assar first started, she would dress up in a sari, she recalls. “But then I realized that I want to be known as the artist, so I need to stand out.” Now she wears all black. She usually sits on the floor or kneels as she works, and guests dance around her. “I get stuff spilled on me all the time,” she says. She brings lots of logo stickers and business cards for marketing. Her face rarely shows up in wedding photos, “but having my name on the henna tube close to the bride’s hand is key,” she says.

Henna is a sideline for Ms. Assar, who works full time as an electrical engineer in the oil-and-gas industry. She says she was artistic as a child, a skill she believes she inherited from her father, an architect, and from family trips to India every few years to visit relatives.

Ms. Assar started doing henna professionally at age 14, when her younger sister, Maya, spotted a “henna lady” at a Los Angeles carnival looking for an assistant. The salon was within walking distance of home. She kept the job throughout high school and her reputation grew.

When she was 17, an Indian wedding planner gave her a table at a South Asian bridal expo. “I showed up with my trifold poster board, like a high-school science-fair display,” she recalls. She booked 23 weddings that day, filling up her calendar for the next six months.

During her college years, Ms. Assar says her parents worried, “Why are you wasting your time with henna? You need to focus on becoming an engineer,” she recalls.

About two years ago, Ms. Assar was hired to paint henna designs on models at a trunk show for jeweler Haati Chai. Celebrity stylists showed up. Those encounters led to Hollywood gigs such as Oscar parties and L.A. Fashion Week events, where Ms. Assar did henna body art for attendees. Her Instagram following exploded. Last month, she worked a birthday party that Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Drake threw for his tour manager.

“I still get a little star-struck,” she says. “I mean, I’m a 35-year-old mom, and I’m sitting at this rapper’s party in Malibu.”

When her name started appearing in magazines, she says, her parents warmed up to her henna career—to a point. “They would tell all their friends about it, but they would always end with, ‘But you know she’s really an engineer,’ ” Ms. Assar jokes.

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