How I empower women here in Montreal and South Asia through my henna art
Henna has brought me closer to my culture and allowed me to express myself creatively
This First Person article is the experience of Sinthusha Kandiah, a social entrepreneur and artist in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
Growing up, I was always gravitating toward art. Painting, sketching, drawing, my hands were constantly itching to doodle on something ever since I was little. With the encouragement of my dad, I was motivated to explore different media.
I saw henna, also known as marudhanni in Tamil and mehdni in Hindi, when I was in elementary school and a classmate had it on her hands. It was intriguing to see such beautiful art on someone's body. I had seen it in movies and other media, but I had never seen it in person until that day.
Ever since then, I was inspired to see my hands as a canvas for my art. I went to my mom and asked her to buy me a henna cone.
At first, she declined because she felt like I was too young, so I started drawing designs with a pen on my hands and paper. Soon enough, my mom bought my first henna cone, when I was 13.
I used the cone to apply a paste made from the dried henna plant to the skin. The first time I tried it, I felt like I'd unleashed a hidden passion within myself. Henna is like meditation for me. It has its own flow, and I feel immersed in the present moment. My mom would tell me stories of how her mother used to put henna on their hands, since they grew the plant in their backyard. They would fill the tips of their fingers and palms as a way to cool down their bodies, as henna is a natural cooling agent.
I always knew art would have a deeper meaning in my life, and I realized I wanted to turn my hobby into a business when I was 17. But I knew I couldn't pursue art as a career, because my parents wouldn't accept it and wanted me to go into science.
I studied anatomy and cell biology in university, but even after earning my degree I never felt like my heart was fully in it. I absolutely adored learning about the human body, but I knew science wasn't my calling.
I told myself, wherever I go in life, I will never let go of my artistic side. So I got the idea to use my passion for art to help make a small difference in this world.
Six years ago, I founded the Divinart Foundation, working to make an impact locally in Tiohtià:ke (also known as Montreal) and internationally in war-affected regions of Illankai (also known as Sri Lanka), and the slums of India with the funds raised from my henna art.
The foundation focuses on empowering blind people impacted by the civil war in Sri Lanka, Indigenous communities in Montreal and women living in slums of India who are often forgotten by society.
In Sri Lanka, I met people who had been caught in crossfire or hurt in explosions during the civil war, leaving them with permanent damage such as blindness or lost limbs. I saw how much strength and perseverance they had in them to live their lives despite their circumstances. The foundation made donations to support their education and livelihood through technology, such as talking calculators and smart speakers, helping break some institutional barriers in rural parts of Sri Lanka.
In Montreal, every year Divinart partners with an organization to positively impact the local community. We've partnered with the women's shelter Chez Doris, and donated baskets filled with everyday staples for newly housed Indigenous women. Most importantly, the aim of this project was to raise awareness about the realities of these resilient Indigenous women, by sharing their stories, with their consent.
In 2019, I started a project to help newly arrived racialized women who experience conjugal violence by providing them with a special pen that holds 13 resources inside that would allow them to seek urgent support at their fingertips. Because these resources are hidden, it prevents their partner from suspecting that they are seeking help.
Divinart has also collaborated with a grassroots organization in India, SAFA, helping women living in slums achieve financial autonomy through their Jugnu project. Women who received entrepreneurship training from the organization were given microfinancing to fund their projects. With funding from past participants and charitable organizations, every year the project supports more women to give them financial autonomy.
Starting this project at a young age has molded me into the person I am today. I seek to constantly impart joy, kindness, love and healing through this beautiful journey that I created for myself all while leading with integrity, respect and empathy to inspire future generations and make a difference in this world.
I believe we all have a purpose in life, and mine is to serve and to help build communities through my art. Using the art of henna to help others has been a critical part of finding my own identity over the years. To feel connected to my cultural roots and traditions by being part of South-Asian weddings, and other celebrations, has helped me value my ancestors and my cultural identity even more.
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