The intricate art of henna

It is not often that you meet someone as vibrant and enthusiastic as artist Shilpa Tagalpallewar.

Hailing from Nagpur in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Shilpa enjoyed a carefree childhood alongside older brother Chandrashekhar and older sister Sharmila.

“The youngest child flies like a butterfly, with no tension, just enjoyment and happiness,” she says of her upbringing.

Her mother, a stay-at-home mom, and father, a farmer and landlord who also took care of ancestral property, gave her freedom to develop her independence and encouraged her to try different things.

And that she did, trying her hand at radio announcing, teaching, poetry and writing, before experimenting with various forms of art.


The Madhubani method

Here in Cayman, Shilpa is best known for her passion of applying henna, the use of which is intrinsic to Indian culture.

She is extremely skilled in its application, discovering a natural talent for it in her college years and can now even teach the art.

Henna refers to the dye made from the dried and crushed henna plant (Lawsonia inermis), which has been used as a medicine and temporary hair dye and skin decoration throughout the ages. The art of application is called Mehndi and it is seen adorning women’s hands and feet across the Indian subcontinent.

Mehndi designs vary by region, with Indian artists creating intricate designs using fine lines. Different images carry different meanings depending on the event; for example the beautiful peacock can mean fertility for a wedding, and good luck during the Indian celebration of Diwali.

Usually lasting two to three weeks, the darker the application of henna, the more the mother-in-law and husband will love the bride, according to Indian wedding tradition.

This, coupled with the fact that new brides do not have to help with housework until the Mehndi fades, leads to brides wanting darker and more long-lasting shades, even using lemon juice to extend longevity. 

While henna can be applied using a bottle with a very thin tip, Shilpa uses a cone method much like a frosting pipe. While applying the dye, she enjoys the opportunity to connect with others, uses the time to tell her clients about India and also learn about their backgrounds.
She has now been applying henna in Cayman for three years since discovering that non-Indians are also interested in this ancient art, and she regularly appears at parties as well as events such as the Pink Ladies Bazaar and the weekly Camana Bay Farmers Market.

“I really enjoy seeing the happiness on clients’ faces,” she says.

Shilpa also applies henna designs to lanterns, candles, parasols and, especially, glassware.


With regards to artistic endeavors on canvas, Shilpa’s journey began during summer holidays spent at her aunt and uncle’s house, where she quietly watched while her aunt, a professional artist, taught her sister Sharmila.

It was not until many years later that Shilpa, whose name means sculpture or carved stone, developed the maturity to put the skills she had learned into action, and once she had given birth to her daughter Samruddhi, now 12, she began to develop her talent.

Her collection of canvas pieces includes Caribbean scenes of white sandy beaches and beautiful foliage, while still including work inspired by her beloved India.

The largest piece she has completed in Cayman portrays two peacocks embracing and is in the form of the traditional Indian folk art style of Madhubani/Mithila. This style of painting hails from the Mithila region of India and was traditionally done on freshly plastered mud hut walls, depicting nature and religious symbols, using bright colors and geometrical patterns.
Shilpa says her intention behind the piece, which took 75 hours to complete, was to show Indian and Cayman nationalities intermingling and accepting each other’s cultures and values. Using the traditional Madhubani method, local Caymanian themes such as stingrays, turtles and local flora are incorporated into the picture.

Alternative materials are of great interest to Shilpa in her artwork which is evident in one of her favorite pieces, a canvas depicting two Indian ladies, that was created using coffee, resulting in an aromatic picture with an antique feel. 



Alongside her beautiful art, it is Shilpa’s spirit and passion for life that is most notable.

“I believe in creating opportunity, not waiting for it,” she says, and this philosophy has proved invaluable.

The family uprooted from the metropolis of Nagpur, with a population of 2.5 million, to move to Cayman when her engineer husband Sandip secured a position with Caribbean Utilities Company in 2009.

Shilpa had difficulty finding a job, but instead of accepting unemployment she opened her own company, Creative Handicrafts.

And it wasn’t purely the job outlook that challenged Shilpa on arriving in Cayman. English was a new language for her and she was initially afraid to talk to people and practice.

Shilpa, however, sees the beauty of nature everywhere in Cayman; in the beaches, sunsets and sunrises, and she feels inspired to recreate this in her artwork.

“My formula for life is simple,” she says. “In between getting up and going to bed I occupy myself as best as I can with my skills.”

Shilpa has immense pride in her culture and hopes one day to be able to repay the homeland she loves so much.

Although she was privileged enough not to suffer from gender inequalities and sexual harassment that affect many women in India, she would like one day to effect some change in this respect.

Having already achieved a masters degree in art and commerce as well as beginning a law degree, Shilpa hopes to start an organization that will help the needy and tackle the subject of women’s rights.

Shilpa dreams big, but if her life so far is any example, these dreams are not out of her reach. “You must have a vision,” she says. “And vision without action is nothing.” 



Above: Shilpa Tagalpallewar, below: henna pattern