Not Just the ‘Mehndi-Waali’
There is a problem in South Asian communities – even among South Asians born and brought up in western 21st century Britain. That problem is one of superiority and one that as a professional henna artist I have experienced first hand one too many times.
Back in India, the poisonous caste system divides people into ranks depending on their occupation; a pyramid kind of system where those from poor backgrounds would be at the bottom of the system and those from richer backgrounds would obviously be higher up. This idea penetrated through to Pakistan too, where my family is from. I remember growing up and being told I was ‘Arain’ and that we were quite respected in the grand scheme of things, but even as a child I found myself questioning the ridiculousness of it all. Because honestly, it is utterly ridiculous and in my eyes serves no purpose other than to divide people and create barriers within society that really don’t need to be there. Unfortunately however, I feel that this mindset of “I am better than you” if what you do for a living isn’t deemed important or worthy in someone’s eyes, is still pretty much alive and kicking among South Asians in Britain, despite them not even living in the countries in which the whole caste system even began.
Anyway, almost a decade ago now, I took up henna professionally, turning it into a side business alongside my university studies. Don’t ask how this even happened, I guess it was just inevitable having been around henna my whole life. Now, if we travel back in time a little to Pakistan and India, the servant of the household would perform a number of tasks as part of her role – quite often this would also include being the one who applied henna on the hands of the family. During that time, she would be the ‘mehndi-waali’; a lower and lesser human in comparison to the people on whom she applied the henna – after all, she was just the servant.
In my time as a henna artist, I must have adorned thousands of people, from private home bookings through to corporate events; from individual appointments through to melas and festivals. Now, as always, I do not paint everyone within the South Asian community with the same brush but some of the experiences I have had while working with South Asian people have been some of the worst and most degrading I have ever had.
Just for a quick overview, some of these experiences include being cornered by a family in a dark street after midnight in order to intimidate me into not demanding the payment I was owed; another experience involved a bride’s mother literally throwing my payment at me after attempting to argue with me about the henna industry and how she knew better about what I should be charging; and many a time, despite having received compliment after compliment on how beautiful they found my work, I would often leave a booking with people throwing me dirty looks and tutting under their breath for what I was charging (despite prices all being agreed upon and confirmed weeks prior to the booking).
Moving to Mauritius almost 2 years ago, the henna body art part of my business has been pretty much on hold as I had a baby, was adjusting to living in a whole new country and was trying to find my space in the market out there. Recently though, taking steps back into the henna world, I showcased my henna body art during an art exhibition to a pretty much all-white, expat audience in Mauritius and the amount of love, respect and attention my art received was so overwhelming. They saw me as the artist that I am.
However, just a couple of weeks later, during a rare booking at a hotel with an Indian family from the UK, I was reminded how fellow South Asians view those who do henna. They don’t see or treat you as a professional; they see you just as their ancestors once did. They see you as just the ‘mehndi-waali’ – someone lesser than them – and because of that, they feel they can tell you what you should be charging, how you should be conducting your business, and even how much they should actually pay you despite you slogging your guts out for them hour after hour.
I write this post because these mindsets really frustrate me. We all know when it comes to weddings, South Asians like to go ALL out. Some spend thousands and thousands of pounds on the smallest of details, just to keep up with the Khans down the road but what really irks me is that when it comes to wedding clothes, hair, make-up, venue, hired car – many South Asians will just pay the price that is being asked without making too much of a deal of it. However, in my experience, what I’ve found that is when it comes down to the henna artist, people will try and wing a discount or tell you how they can get it cheaper elsewhere or “seriously, you can’t charge that amount just for a mandala!”. It’s like come on people, can you seriously not see yourselves or hear what you’re saying?!?
I completely trust the Universe and I know I will be guided to the experiences that will help me grow and become the best version of me that I can be. That’s why I know through the experiences I have had recently, while reentering the henna world, that I need not go where my art is not appreciated; I need not be where I am seen as ‘just the mehndi-waali’. Don’t get me wrong; I have met some of the most wonderful, friendly and beautiful South Asian people through doing henna, made incredible connections and shared wonderful, conscious conversations. But as someone who takes her art seriously and after a long and difficult battle, as someone who now loves and respects herself, I will no longer stand for people who do not have the decency to simply respect another human being and their craft.
So this is a message to all my fellow henna artists who believe in their work and take themselves as professionals – respect yourself and love yourself enough to learn to say no to people who do not appreciate your talent, your energy and your hard work. Respect and love yourself enough to learn not to take sh*t from people who see you as lesser than them. And respect and love yourself enough to know that despite certain mindsets, being a henna artist is a pretty, flippin’ wonderful thing to be and brings joy and beauty into so many peoples lives.
And before I close this off, a quick message to those who feel they have the right to barter with, insult and disrespect a henna artist – in your eyes you may just see her as the ‘mehndi-waali’, but the ‘mehndi-waali’ wherever in the world she may be, is still a human being. So be a decent human being yourself and treat her like one, too.
I totally can relate to this. Most clients don’t consciously push this view across but you can sense that it’s there. I wanted to share with you a recent experience I had with a client – where for reasons beyond my control I was late for the event they had booked me for. So I decided to inform them of this well in advance and I apologised profusely and decided that to compensate they wouldn’t need to pay me a travel fee.
I arrived and I wasn’t recieved well. Naturally I understand why – but there was no need for rudeness. I had previously discussed with the lady who had booked me that I charge £££ for henna strips. What really annoyed me is how people expect you to do more details than they’ve paid for. They then don’t inform their guests of the arrangement and I am PESTERED constantly about doing the entire hand and doing other body parts. Sadly, these people don’t want to listen to subtle clues. But it really stressed me out, I left at 3am exhausted and feeling violated. From that experience I’ve learnt so much. To be more assertive, stick to what the client agreed with, charge additional fee if I stay past 12pm and various other things. We all have our experieces with the Southasian community and I for one would like to see a change in their perception of the ‘mehendi walli’ and for them to respect us like other professionals. But also to respect our boundaries.