Mehndi stories | Portfolio

Through a special collaborative project, Dr Gabrielle Hosein explores how the Indian art of mehndi uniquely commemorates the legacies of Indian indentured labourers who arrived on Caribbean shores some 186 years ago

  • Photo courtesy Abigail Hadeed
  • Photo courtesy Abigail Hadeed

I’ve always loved mehndi. For anniversaries or birthdays, I’d look forward to seeing the swirls and flower designs turn red and then brown on my hands, arms, and feet. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit mendhika, referring to the red dye released by the henna plant. “Henna”, in turn, originated from hina — the Arabic name for the Lawsonia inermis plant.

Today, the dye is transformed into temporary body art by both Muslim and Hindu women to bring good luck and symbolise women’s beauty and femininity.

While mehndi is part of bridal preparations for marriage, it has been embraced by modern, globalised fashion, and in the Caribbean is also worn for Divali and even Carnival. In India, there have always been diverse styles of using the dye to create stains in dots and patterns.

Mehndi came with Indians’ arrival as labourers who were indentured or contracted between 1838 and 1920 to work on Caribbean sugar plantations for periods of five or more years. Half a million Indians were brought by the British, Dutch, and French from areas such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madras to work in dehumanising, punitive, and exploitative conditions.

For women, who were sometimes about one quarter of these migrants, there was opportunity for greater economic and sexual autonomy than in India — at the same time as there was multifaceted and continuous subordination and violence.

Indian survival now sees commemorations in Grenada (1 May), Guyana (5 May), St Lucia and Martinique (6 May), Jamaica (10 May), Trinidad & Tobago (30 May), St Vincent & the Grenadines (1 June), St Kitts & Nevis (3 June), Suriname (5 June), and Guadeloupe (25 December). The story of Indian indenture is deeply Caribbean.

How can we continue to document the legacies of indenture which we have all inherited? I turned to mehndi as a traditional feminine artform to create a visual archive or imaginative way of documenting such history — a project that would become The Botanical Afterlife of Indenture: Mehndi as Imaginative Visual Archive.

The story of Indian indenture is deeply Caribbean

I drew on the writing of scholars Dr Kumar Mahabir and Professor Brinsley Samaroo on the seeds, plants, fruits, and flowers brought by indentured Indians to the Caribbean. Think of mangoes, guavas, pomegranates, string beans (bodi), moringa (saijan), pumpkin, ganja, rice, sapodilla, turmeric, ginger, bitter gourd (caraillee), curry plant, tamarind, cucumber, spinach (bhaji), and much more.

This flora is also typically associated with sustenance and kitchen gardens — and therefore with women’s historical responsibilities for care, and indentured Indians’ family and cultural survival.

I collaborated with Abigail Hadeed (an artist/photographer who has been documenting Caribbean culture for over 30 years), mehndi artist Risa Raghunanan-Mohammed, fashion designer Chandra Rattan, theatre set designer Geneva Drepaulsingh, and jeweller Steven Weaver.

We created original mehndi designs of botanicals from India, and combined them with those from Africa and those indigenous to the Caribbean. We also used mehndi to record post-indenture, rural life, which has never been done in our region.

It was necessary to tie indenture to more than the image of sugar cane, as much as it was essential to create designs that could make all bodies — across difference — feel beautiful. Natural dye highlights an ecologically sustainable tradition that has become ever more urgent amid the climate crisis and its effects.

As mother of a Dougla — or mixed Indian and African — daughter, I also dreamed that Ziya would be able to see how legacies of indenture are hers as much as mine. She is connected to it through landscape and culture as much as through family and love. Our landscape itself is a living, botanical archive of the afterlife of Indian indenture. It surrounds her as she makes her own place in it. As do I. As do we all.

Look out for launch and exhibition information on The Botanical Afterlife of Indenture: Mehndi as Imaginative Visual Archive as the region celebrates Indian-Caribbean culture and heritage in May and June.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.