| Deepa’s designs. Picture by Amit Datta
Hands and feet, arms and bellies. Arabian art and Indian zardosi. All from the hands with designs on Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha, Sanjana Kapoor and Sangeeta Bijlani. Mehendi mania has gripped the girls queuing up at Forum, for a Deepa Sharma special. The 30-year-old, third-generation mehendi artist, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother for the past 17 years, has been around the world and back, creating intricate patterns from fingers to toes, adorning foreigners and Bollywood stars alike.
In the city from August 7 to 11, for the five-day festival at the Elgin Road shopping mall, Deepa and her 23-year-old assistant Dolly Sharma have been applying mehendi non-stop, on schoolchildren and grandmothers. “We haven’t had five minutes to ourselves. It’s been amazing,” grinned Deepa, busy applying mehendi on the hands of a teenaged girl.
And the rush had its reasons. For hands hennaed by Deepa are as big and beautiful as they get — from the Big B to the Queen Bee. She’s done the mehendi for Shweta Bachchan at her wedding, with a special request by papa Amitabh for a symbol on his palm. “He had a heart with his and Jaya Bachchan’s name inside,” recounted Deepa.
Another memorable mehendi moment was at Sanjana Kapoor’s marriage ceremony, where “the great” Rekha had a symbol drawn in henna on her palm. The design, requested by the actress, was a parsley leaf, with the name of a favourite Bollywood hero scripted inside.
If the Calcutta customer tended to be conservative — no necks, please, unlike in Mumbai — there were a few bold belles who got their bellies decorated, albeit in the backroom. The most popular canvases, of course, were the hands and arms, feet and ankles. Arabian designs came out on top, with dark or red shaded ones a close second. Other favourites included Moghlai and zardosi. “Calcuttans like getting their money’s worth,” said Deepa.
Prices ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 2,000 and above did not deter the determined — in T-shirts and jeans, saris or school uniforms, looking for western-style arm-bands or traditional hand-work — waiting for hours for a 15-minute sitting.
Gagan Bagri of Raman’s, the lifestyle store hosting the Mumbai mehendi duo, confirmed: “Over the weekend, it started at 10.30 am and instead of ending at around 8.30 pm, there were queues well past 10 pm. They didn’t even have time for lunch.”
For Deepa, it’s all just a job and all in the family, as well. “My mother, Bhramadevi, who did the mehendi for Malaika Arora in the Chhaiya chhaiya song, has been doing this for the past 45 years. She started a group some years ago, where she teaches young girls. Now, there are around 40 of us doing this work,” explained Deepa.
Six years ago, Deepa had been to Rome, at the Italian government’s behest, for an Indian cultural programme. Four years ago, she was a practising mehendi artist at a Selfridges store in London, which is where she picked up Chinese symbols, because it was very popular. “Abroad, people want small, simple, glitter patterns or symbols and characters. Indians want more elaborate, intricate stuff that lasts longer,” she observed.
Having just finished a Coca-Cola commercial yet to go on air, where she applied the mehendi on Priya Badlani, the model starring opposite Aamir Khan, Deepa still fights shy of fame. “It makes me nervous,” signs off the woman, for whom a brush with the rich and the famous is all in a day’s work.