The smell of earth and lavender fills the room with every squeeze of the cone filled with henna, piping intricate designs on an outstretched palm. The paste feels cool to the touch as the bright red stain seeps into the skin.
It’s an ancient practice familiar to many South Asian communities. And now, one Montrealer is using it to empower and support women in Parc-Extension.
This is the Mehendi Pro Collective.
“The idea is to extract this wealth that exists in the South Asian wedding industry and transfer it to marginalized communities,” said Sinthusha Kandiah, a professional henna artist and the founder of Divinart, her non-profit organization.
The idea came to Kandiah during her work with the group Afrique au Féminin in the Montreal neighbourhood. She heard concerns of limited access to employment due to the range of issues many immigrant women face, like language barriers and trouble finding daycare.
“I was like, why not use the skills and gifts that I have? And to impart that knowledge on those women and give them a sense of empowerment and financial stability,” Kandiah told host Sabrina Marandola on CBC Montreal’s Let’s Go.
A chance to rediscover art
This was an ideal opportunity for 39-year-old Maryam Najam. She immigrated to Park Ex from Pakistan in November 2013 with her husband and three kids.
Throughout her life, Najam always had a passion for art and creativity, from fashion to makeup and even henna. But she had to put all of it on hold for her family as moved to Canada, and again as the pandemic hit.
“The creativity was there, but somehow, you know, it was in hibernation,” said Najam. “So when Sinthu offered me this program … I was just looking for a way so that I could just get out of this feeling, that I need to get something in my life, that makes me cheer up.”
The road to professional henna artistry
Now, Najam and two other women are undergoing an eight-week training program with the Mehendi Pro Collective, with the goal of becoming professional henna artists at the end.
Kandiah said it’s been a learning process for everyone, including her.
“It’s like one thing to know this art, but to teach and transfer the skill to others and allow them to see through your eyes has been a huge learning curve for me,” said Kandiah. “We all learn from each other.”
Najam says she’s motivated to practise the art every day. She’s open to either continuing her work as part of Kandiah’s team, or start her own practice — as long as she gets to exercise her creative muscles.
“For me, the number one thing is being creative, keeping my mind open and loving something,” said Najam.
“When you do something creative, and you love it and it’s your passion, you feel relaxed, you feel calm. So mehendi [henna] is just like that for me now.”
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