Divya Patel, the artist behind, Henna by Divya, is a professional henna artist, with more than a decade of experience with henna body art. Something that started as a hobby at a really young age blossomed into a passion which, despite some hurdles, drove her to pursue this art full time. She is experienced with both traditional and modern henna styles and is versatile in her style and work.
Over the years, she’s developed a style that’s unique and distinguished and continues to create designs with the same level of passion as when she first started. Divya particularly loves working with brides to create bespoke and unique designs that reflect her client’s personal love story. Her work has been recognized in TorontoStar, Brit&Co, Buzzfeed, People Magazine, Vogue, Yahoo and Huffington Post.

“When I was younger, there was a period of time where I had fallen quite ill and needed to be hospitalized for a couple of days. Seeing as I was bored out of mind, my dad brought me a coloring book to pass time. I remember coming across a picture of a big cantaloupe, or was it some sort of vegetable? I can’t quite recall, but I do remember the frustration I felt when I couldn’t find the right shade of crayon to fill in the outline of that cantaloupe. So naturally, I complained, as any finicky adolescent would, and pleaded for a new box of colors.

To this day I have not forgotten my dad’s response:

Why can’t you use a different color? There are no rules.

Most of my childhood memories from when I lived in India are vague and muffled, but for whatever reason, this particular memory remains vivid and distinct. My dad passed away three and a half years ago, but the lessons he taught me, this one in particular amidst many, remain engrained and spirited in my heart.

There are no rules.

Growing up, I was always gravitating towards art; painting, sketching, drawing, my hands were always itching to doodle on something. My mom has always been a reservoir of artistic talent; from working as a bridal makeup artist back in India to painting and pursuing other creative outlets in her spare time. She also worked with her best friend, who just so happened to be a henna artist. Subsequently, I grew up in a very creatively charged place, surrounded by henna, artistry, and craftsmanship. When we immigrated to Canada, my mom brought along with her, some books filled with henna designs. I would spend hours doodling designs with a marker and eventually began buying henna cones from the grocery store to practice on my friends during recess.

I was beginning to fall in love with henna. 

 

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I got my first serious booking through a neighbour’s friend who had seen my work on someone and asked if I could do henna for their sangeet party. I was 10 or 11 at that time. Following this event, inquiries and booking requests began flooding in, simply through word of mouth. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my journey as a henna artist had begun. Many people who encountered my work had never even heard of, let alone seen henna done before and they were almost always taken back by this unique art form. ‘Mindblowing!,’ ‘How do you do that freehand?,’ ‘Oh, it’s such an incredible art!’ were just some of the sayings I became accustomed to hearing.

Despite being immersed in all these kind and encouraging words and having such a supportive family, there was always a part of me that never took art seriously. Perhaps it was an awareness that I, along with many of my fellow first-generation children have, when we look to our parents and witness the sacrifices they have made in the name of our future. Did I mention the inevitable guilt that comes with that awareness? There is this constant, underlying pressure (whether our parents deliver it or not) to pursue a ‘realistic career’ that values income and security over interests and their associated risks.  

 

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Frankly, being an artist as a full-time, life-sustaining job simply never crossed my mind—or perhaps I never allowed it to. This denial had less to do with what my parents actually thought (which was nothing short of approval) and everything to do with society telling me that a doctor, engineer or lawyer were the only surefire ways to make my parents proud.

I remember in grade four I had done a painting that I was rather proud of and a five-year-old approached me and asked: ‘do you want to be an artist when you grow up?’ That question then, and even now, sounds so strange and out of place.

‘No,’ I had said to her. ‘I want to be a doctor.’

Anyhow, I continued to do henna as often as I could until school grabbed the wheel and my passion took a backseat. All throughout high school, I worked towards being accepted into a well-known university for a four-year Bachelor of Science program. Why? Because, well, what else do people do after high school? High school to university to a full-time job, that’s it, right? Besides, that’s what all my friends were doing…

Somewhere in the midst of this chaos, I forgot, there were no rules.

It was the summer following my first year of university that my life took a bit of a turn. I had created a Facebook page in high school to share my mehndi designs and my family and friends urged me to start an Instagram page as well (Instagram was just beginning to pick up momentum at the time; a social media platform exclusively for photos, perfect for me!). That summer, for four months straight, I did henna to my heart’s content and I began posting designs consistently on my social media. Soon, I started getting recognized on Instagram and even got bookings through clients that had stumbled upon my page.

 

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Suddenly I was in the midst of a snowball effect; the more bookings I took, the more came my way and the more word spread about my craft. I would go back to school in September, finish exams in April and then continue to do henna from May to August. It was definitely difficult balancing the two, but pursuing something I wasn’t interested in (my science degree), in fact, amplified my appreciation for my side hustle.

Despite having built such an incredible clientele and having the opportunity to travel and meet fascinating people, I spent a lot of my time in university feeling unsuccessful. That’s just it though, isn’t it? We grow up brainwashed into believing there is only one socially acceptable construct of success and anything that falls outside of that box is simply not good enough. This can leave you feeling complete, incomplete.

 

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Pursuing my passion, even part-time, has come with its trials and tribulations. I wasn’t always proud of my side hustle, in fact, I don’t even think side hustle was a word then. Introducing myself as a henna artist or telling my friends and family that I do henna was very unconventional and even belittling. In India, you can find people doing mehndi on the streets to earn a subpar income. For that reason, it’s often not perceived with the degree of respect it rightfully deserves. Consequently, anyone who has witnessed or is aware of this disregard for mehndi artists back home extends that opinion here as well.

However, times have definitely changed for the better. And with that, so have I.

There was a saying my dad always told my brother and me,

Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle Khuda bande se puche, ‘bata, teri raza kya hai.

It translates to: 

Make yourself so capable that before deciding what’s in your destiny, God asks you, Tell me, what do you want.

Today, I am privileged and humbled to have clients of all ethnicities who truly appreciate the art, the intricacy and effort it demands and most importantly, its value. Today I have grown to be much more confident and fearless with my craft. My focus remains on improving my art and my ability, whether or not that fits into the arbitrary norms set by society. I have absolutely no regrets about attending university and gaining a degree in science because, in its own way, it has played an important role in shaping the person I am today.

I graduated in December 2017 and have chosen to pursue henna full time now. I want to continue using my platform to spread awareness of this beautiful art, both here and back home. The art may be ancient to India but we sure have a lot to learn. I’m not a mehendi wali. I’m an artist.” 

–Divya

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