Valley’s family-based henna custom fading

Outstation henna designers occupy market across Valley

Sajad Bhat
SRINAGAR: Designing intricate henna patterns to decorate women’s hands used to be integral to wedding celebrations in Kashmir, delightful to remember and to anticipate. As folk musician Abdul Rehman, 60, who has sung at marriage ceremonies across the Valley, recalls, “It was our tradition that close relatives and friends of the bride would design her mehandi; it would take a whole night to do so.”
However, times are changing, and the mehandi designer’s trade has followed them. “Nowadays people hire designers from beauty parlours,” Rehaman says; “the mehandi ceremony has become a formality, for these designers finish their designs a day before.”
Where increasing unemployment is a concern across the Valley, people are simultaneously becoming more dependent on an outstation labour force that is bringing drastic changes in the Valley’s work culture.
The henna industry is a case in point. Despite Kashmiris having adapted to the requirements of every field of art work, they have taken the back seat here and are letting outstation henna designers occupy every market across the Valley.
Rakash is a henna designer from Rajasthan who works at Srinagar’s Goni Khan Chowk. According to him, there are more than 300 henna designers working across the Valley in different markets and towns like Baramullah, Sopore, Islamabad and Budgam. “Local shopkeepers in markets dealing with women’s wear and designing items coordinate us with people and arrange customers, mostly brides,” he says.
There are more than a dozen outstation henna designers working in Goni Khan Chowk, including Rakash and his four brothers who have been working in the Valley for the last seven years.
“We have no difficulty earning our bread and butter, designing as we do for more than 50 customers every day,” Rakash says. The brothers charge 50 rupees per hand from a normal customer while from a bride, charges range from Rs. 1,500 to 3,000, depending upon the type of design and the amount of work to be done.
“We have a good demand throughout the season, especially during marriage seasons and at Eid celebrations. For winter, we shift in November to Delhi and we return in March,” he says.
Rakash says they also have a good demand in Delhi as people there love henna, but Kashmiri women are more keen on it, from little girls to middle-aged women.
Another street-side henna designer, Reena from Uttar Pradesh who works near the Jami Masjid in Nowhatta, claims she has been here for three years. “In marriage season and on religious occasions in Kashmir, demand increases, though nowadays it has become the fashion in Kashmir, whether the occasion is a marriage or any other party.”
Reena says she uses a special oil which makes common henna last a week before it diminishes. “I design for 30 to 40 customers a day, including children. I also go to marriage ceremonies (Mehendi Raat) to design for brides, where I charge between Rs 1,500 and 3000,” Reena says.
Shalini, a professional henna designer who has gone through a diploma course in henna designing and who works at a renowned beauty parlour in Srinagar, says that the street-side mehendi designers have affected the market badly.
“There are many reasons behind this, and a cultural gap is one of them. Women usually feel shy going to parlours, and most of the brides we dress here say it is their first experience. They prefer local, street-side designers, when there is not much difference in rates,” she believes.
Shalini says that they use quality henna in designing, while designers on pavements use dyes in their henna which are harmful for sensitive skin and lose colour within a week.
“Unawareness among customers is another reason, people do not know much about henna designing and the products and methods used in it,” she says.
Subreena, who was at Goni Khan Chowk getting mehandi designs done for her seven-year-old daughter, said it is cheaper than at a beauty parlour. “I don’t like to go to beauty parlours because no one from our family goes there, and I don’t feel comfortable in them either,” she says.
A Goni Khan Chowk shopkeeper , Ayaz Ahmad, who rents out bridal dresses, reveals that arranging henna designers is often part of the package. “Most brides ask us to arrange a henna designer for them,” he says.
Sociologist Dr. Tariq Ahmad Rather calls street henna designing a cultural interaction that some outstation workers brought to the Valley, but does not feel it will last because, he says, cultural interaction is always asymmetrical. “It is always a minority who adopts the culture of the majority, like in India, Hindu festivals are celebrated nationally and Hindi is considered the national language,” he says.
Well-known Kashmiri poet and social activist Zarif Ahmed Zarif says, “Both the Pandit as well as the Muslim community used to celebrate henna design as a custom during marriage ceremonies but nowadays henna designing is done in the open, which is not our culture. Only relatives and family members were allowed to see the bride during henna designing, but now our women are seen designing applying henna patterns on the streets.”
Zarif says that during the past decade, outstation workers flooded the Kashmir Valley and also brought their cultures with them. “Kashmiris are seen easily copying and adopting other cultures, and street henna designing culture is one among them,” he says.