The magic of mehndi

It’s like a temporary tattoo, but mehndi predates that trend by thousands of years. Essiba Small tries out this ancient art of decorating the body

  • Photograph by Ariann Thompson
  • Risa Raghunanan practising her craft. Photograph by Ariann Thompson

As a student at the Lakshmi Girls’ High School, in St Augustine, Trinidad, Risa Raghunanan used to draw hearts on her hand with a pen whenever she thought about the boy she liked. She used to draw flowers too, vines, and, of course, the name of the boy in question. Her friends at school admired her work so much that they would put in requests for her to draw patterns on their hands.

Her school memories came flooding back as she worked her design magic on my left hand. But a henna cone replaced the ballpoint pen, and instead of blue or black ink, a dark green paste oozed from the pointy tip of the tube. The sunflower drawing she so neatly started in the middle of my hand was soon part of a larger pattern that included vines, leaves, curls and swirls. Eight minutes later, the drawing was complete. As it dried, Raghunanan patted on some sugar water. “This is to make the stain stronger,” she said.

Just as she had explained before doing the drawing, the green, puffy paste started to flake off, leaving behind a burnt-orange-coloured pattern.

“What I am doing here is actually what I do for Hindu brides before they get married,” Raghunanan said.

Raghunanan first encountered mehndi through her art teacher, who was born in India.

“She used to put henna on her hands. She was the one who told me to buy the henna powder and showed me how to mix it and apply it. I remember begging my mom to buy me the powder just so I could try it.”

After leaving school, the self-taught Raghunanan, now 24, started doing mehndi for her friends and family. The mother of one, she built up a clientele, after word – and photos – of her work spread. For the past two years Raghunanan, who lives in Freeport, central Trinidad, has been working full-time under the name Risa’s Exotic Mehndi Art. Her clients are mainly Hindu brides and members of their bridal parties, friends, and people who want a tattoo, but without the long-lasting commitment (mehndi lasts three weeks before it starts to fade).

She has upgraded from cones to fine-tipped jacquard bottles that make the henna easier to apply. “It’s like icing a cake, ” she said. She has also experimented with glitter and rhinestones. The design she does for me is similar to one she would do for a bride – although in that case she would spend more than eight minutes on it. This kind of design usually starts at the fingertips and moves up to the elbow. It leaves little room for error, but if she makes a mistake, Raghunanan said, she quickly erases it, using the tip of the henna cone or bottle, before it dries.

Raghunanan designs many of her own patterns. “You wouldn’t believe how many pop into my head. Even when I am asleep I just commit them to memory and use them when asked for a design.” Sometimes she looks for pattern ideas online, or clients bring their own designs to her.

Raghunanan also imports materials and makes her own brand of henna pastes, mixed with essential oils. She’s self-taught, but has progressed to the point where she conducts workshops. “Doing this job has been a passion for a long time,” she says. “I want to continue growing in it.”


Risa Raghunanan

Along with some 300 others, amateurs and professionals, Raghunan is among the mehndi artists of Trinidad & Tobago who have been keeping this Indian art alive. Dating back 5,000 years, and stemming from many ancient cultures, mehndi is a temporary art done on the body with henna, which is used in India for religious and ritualistic ceremonies. Henna comes from the bush Lawsonia inermis, commonly found in the Middle East. The bush is harvested, dried, and then crushed to make henna powder. The top leaves of the plant are best for mehndi, it is said.


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