DEVINA Beharry is not one to show off her talents. She'd rather sit on the sidelines, relishing the look of amazement and satisfaction on her client's faces than brag about how much she's accomplished in her 18-year run as a Mehindi artist. But on this occasion, as photographer Ayanna Kinsale and I chatted with Beharry in her workroom on Freeling Street in Tunapuna, Beharry was bursting with pride as her longtime friend Talya showed off the latest Mehindi design she created for her.
Lifting the hem of her orange and yellow sari, Talya revealed an Indian dancer on her outer left calf. It's not just a henna tattoo, it's more like a work of art. Every detail from the expression on the dancer's face to the embroidery on her sari is intricate and well-executed. Sure, we have seen Mehindi in the form of religious and floral patterns adorning the feet and palms of brides, but never have we seen Mehindi done this way. In a matter of weeks, the henna will fade away and the Indian dancer will be just a memory, but the look of accomplishment on Beharry's face was priceless.
When Beharry began experimenting with Mehindi almost two decades ago, it was not the fashionable craze that it is today. Back then she was among a handful of Mehindi artists.
"I used to buy the stencils that they sell in the puja stores but I found that they were messy. My mom loved the Mehindi and I was always good at art so she told me to try it freestyle without the stencil," says Beharry as she rolls a cone filled with freshly made henna paste.
Soon she was practising on her mother and sister, on her neighbours and on anyone who was willing to a be a participant and offer up their bodies as a blank canvas for Beharry to work on. As the years went by, she applied herself to the craft and saw her clientele grow and her portfolio chock-full of designs, expand. Today, Beharry can do any design - from the simplest to the most ornate - in the shortest space of time, without sparing the minutest of details.
These days, Mehindi artists are not in short supply as they were when Beharry first started out.
"Now everybody's a Mehindi artist," says Beharry as a smile crosses her lips. A steady hand, good eyesight and a penchant for art are three must-haves for anyone desirous of being a Mehindi artist, but that's not all. A great Mehindi artist, explains Beharry, is one who has a passion, love and most of all - respect for the age old tradition of Mehindi.
"It's not good enough to copy designs from the Internet and practise it on others just for the sake of making money. There is a science behing Mehindi. There is a religious meaning behind every motif. Every day I learn something new about Mehindi, from the traditional, to the Indo western designs and Arabic and floral patterns. From the moment I picked up a cone (which is used to apply Henna), I began learning the do's and don'ts of Mehindi," she says.
Mehindi is one of civilisation's oldest forms of artwork. It was recorded as far back as 1200 B.C. A close study of Egyptian mummies has revealed that henna was also used in the hair and on the nails of pharoahs during the mummification process. But Mehindi which is the process or art of applying henna was also used as an icebreaker, says Beharry.
In the case of arranged marriages in India when husband and wife met each other for the first time on their wedding day, the bride had the Mehindi artist inscribe the groom's name among the exquisite patterns drawn on her legs and hands. Later in the evening it was up to her new husband to find his name, Beharry said with a smile.
For some, henna is still very much a daily staple. Take as an example the Himba tribe which resides in the desert plains of Northern Namibia. Every day as a rule of thumb the women churn a mixture of henna and buttermilk in a mortar before spreading the smooth paste on their skin. The final result is an appearance of burnt copper from head to toe.
Beharry finds her inspiration in the fascinating work of old traditional Mehindi artists who have been practising this art form for decades.
It's easy to find ready-made Mehindi cones, but Beharry prefers to make her own henna paste with original and natural henna powder and oils directly from Pakistan which leave a stain the colour of pumpkin-orange. She refuses to use either black or red henna on her clients and she advises those who wish to have Mehindi applied on their feet or palms to avoid using anything other than natural henna since the black and red henna contain a harsh chemical and synthetic dye para-Phenylenediamine to give a tattoo-black appearance. However PPD is extremely harmful to the skin and could cause severe allergic reactions that could lead to permanent injury or death, warns Beharry. In August of this year, more than 100 women and children flooded the wards of a public hospital in Tamil Nadu, India after suffering burning sensations and red patches and other allergic reactions to the PPD that were associated with red and black henna.
"With these Indian expos, you find a lot of red and black henna being sold and there are those who want a dark stain so they go ahead and buy it but they don't know the side effects that this can have on them," she says.
Beharry owns and manages her own company - Devi's Mehindi and Body Art and has her own line of products including Mehindi oil, Mehindi balm and cones. She is also working on her own line of body art paints. On November 17-18, Beharry will be hosting a first of its kind body arts workshop in collaboration with artist Jay Bautista from Orlando, Florida. The workshop will be held at the Warrenville Regional Complex.
For Beharry, these days are long and she's swamped with so much work in the lead-up to Divali that it's hard to keep a mental note of how many hands and feet she's painted with henna. To date, she has applied henna on around 500 brides during the 18-year stretch of her career. For the past six years, she has also been teaching Mehindi at the University of the West Indies Open Campus, St Augustine.
For those wanting Mehindi professionally applied for a special occasion or for those who have never tried it before but are curious, she can also be found at booth 96 at the Divali Nagar or she can be contacted at 345-9739 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.