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Weaving the mehndi magic

Ash Kumar, the fastest mehndi artist in the world, who has a fat celebrity clients list, speaks with Johnson Thomas.

art and culture Updated: Feb 05, 2008 18:59 IST
Johnson Thomas

His clients range from Julia Roberts and Madonna to Kareena Kapoor and Aishwarya Bachchan. And at the age of 27, he has set up a multinational business in mehendi and designs.

High society divas, tycoon families and global fashion toppers clamour for his creations. He has found a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest mehndi artist in the world and his work is on permanent display in London's Royal Victoria and Albert Museum. Enough said. Over to Ash Kumar in conversation with Johnson Thomas.


How did the mehndi business happen?
Absolutely by chance. I don't have any degree in mehndi designing or in fine arts. I actually graduated in forensic science. I would doodle in my notebook during the lectures and my friends would say, "Ash, why don't you try painting ?"

I tried but paint brushes, pencil colours and crayons are not my medium, I was a disaster. Then I tried mehndi.. and voila, the designs came out beautifully.. and I was fast. <b1>

Why is speed so essential in executing a mehndi design?
See, mehndi artists usually take 16 to 18 hours to complete their work. I could do it in 15-20 minutes flat and the results were stunning.

Or that's what I was told. I understood I could create a niche for myself. I was already snowed under with assignments to do mehndi for weddings.

In fact, the going was very good. There were the inevitable hiccups.. like when I started playing around with colours, the market didn't really have the quality products I needed.

My forensic science degree helped me to develop the kind of skin friendly products I was looking for. So, a business was born. It wasn't only about designs, the products are also made by me.

What kind of products?
The Ash Kumar mehndi is sold in cone-shaped dispensers. There's a glitter range.. a gem range and more. Once, mehndi art was simply a home-based industry. The artists would make the cone or use traditional wooden block designs. Mehndi has been around for centuries, prices had remained stagnant too. So I saw a business opportunity and grabbed it.

Mehndi is now marketed in high-end beauty-shops the world over. My products can be seen in the famous stores of London, New York.. and India, of course. You know even atta started at home. Today, it is being packaged, branded and sold in malls.

When were you first noticed in the market?
BBC television was doing a show on the therapeutic qualities of mehndi. My designs were featured. Before I knew it, I had the record of being the fastest mehndi artist in the world. <b2>

Then, popular Indian culture became even bigger in London. Bollywood was saluted and artists and artisans are always called upon to showcase their skills. I wanted to have a product range and an education centre promoting the art of mehndi.. and now I do! Today, I'm obsessive about doing mehndi shoots and make-up. I'm quite shocked! Even I didn't know I had it in me.

I've heard that music inspires your designs.
Now, that's a complicated area to get into. I just can't go around saying that Indian music, classical as well as popular sets off images and patterns in my mind, without getting into the specifics.

Okay, let me ask you which singers inspire you?
My favourite singers are A R Rahman, Ila Arun, Shubha Mudgal, Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar and Alka Yagnik. I admire artistes like Rahman who won't be able to explain why he uses a violin and not a sitar, a trumpet and not a saxophone, for a particular piece of music. I also admire Javed Akhtar who doesn't have to tell you why he's using the word phool and not gulab, why ankh and not aankhen.

Art is best left unexplained. That's why I can't talk about the relationship of my designs with music. I cannot explain why I work leaf motifs into my designs, or add glitter and Swaroski crystals. Paisleys are also part of my designs. I look at design in the way Javed saab approaches lyrics. I don't ask myself why a leaf pattern instead of a paisley, why a petal instead of a flower.

And I am inspired by colours, embroidery and films. I can be inspired as much by Hollywood's Chicago as I can be by Jodhaa Akbar.