Festival Special: Art and Soul of Asian Life; Asian Art Forms like Mehndi and Ayurveda Have Been Embraced by Western Celebrities, Including Madonna and Naomi Campbell. ZOE CHAMBERLAIN Visits a Birmingham Community Centre Where They Are Far More Than Just the Latest Fad

Article excerpt

Byline: Zoe Chamberlain

A PROPHET was passing through the heavens and found a beautiful plant which he brought to earth for his daughter. As she cared for and nurtured the plant, she discovered her hands had turned red from touching the leaves - and the art of mehndi was born.

This is one of many stories about the origins of the ancient Asian art form, which involves adorning the hands and feet with a paste made from finely ground henna leaves. Its exact origins are not known, but it has been used as a cosmetic, and for its supposed healing properties, for at least 5,000 years.

One of the earliest documentations of henna use comes from ancient Egypt, where it is known to have been used to stain the fingers and toes of the Pharaohs prior to mummification.

Today it has been made popular in the West by glamorous celebrities including Madonna and supermodel Naomi Campbell.

But to a small group of women in Sparkhill it is much more than a trendy passing fad - it is a lifestyle.

For the ladies of the Sparkhill Women's Support Group, based at Percy Road Community Health Care Centre, this relaxing art form is a means of getting out of the home and meeting other people. It gives them an independent interest, a skill and a sense of pride in their work.

Wedding mehndi

In fact, the group sessions have had such a powerful effect that these women, who once would not have dreamt of doing anything socially without their husbands, have decided they want to go out to a restaurant to celebrate the festival of Eid-Ul-Adha.

Mehndi teacher and expert Rehanna Vohra, from Sparkhill, said: 'This art form was passed down through generations of women in my family.

'I began to do mehndi at around six years old with my mother and my sister. It is something that is very important to the Bohra community, my community.

'My sister began doing mehndi for our neighbours and family members, and soon after I was pleased my father let me go out with my sister.'

Rehanna, aged 47, began teaching and is now paid up to pounds 50 per hour by brides wanting mehndi as part of their wedding celebration. …