For 17 years, Shivam has spent a good part of the day drawing patterns on women’s hands and feet. He’s a skilled mehendi designer from Delhi. A B.Com graduate from Agra University, it was his ambition “to do business” that made him learn how to draw mehendi patterns. “I trained for two years, you need a lot of practice,” he says, in a mix of English and Tamil, after establishing that my Hindi won’t go far. His Tamil, though, is good; he’s picked it up from customers, writing down new words and learning them.

But Shivam’s customers have done more than just teach him the language; it was one of them who suggested that he migrate south. “In Delhi, a South Indian customer told me, that here (in Chennai) you could get mehendi done only in beauty parlours.” In Delhi, he says, all markets have mehendi designers, and they’re all usually men. Shivam now lives in West Mambalam, with the rest of the members of his team, who joined him after he moved south. “We just walk to work, it’s very close by.” Shivam’s workplace is the pavement outside Panagal Park, T. Nagar. Seated on a low stool, he tells me of his impressions of Chennai, all mostly good. “It’s a peaceful life here. No jealousies. Mostly, people follow the law.” North Indian food is the only area where the city lets him down. “Chapathi, subzi is very costly here. So I cook food at home.”

Mehendi is quite popular now in Chennai, says Shivam. “We also go to houses to do bridal mehendi and for functions.” Given his years of experience, it takes Shivam only 10 minutes to trace a pattern on one palm. “For a full hand it takes 20 minutes, and for both hands and legs it takes one to one-and-a-half hours, depending on the design.” To help his clientele choose patterns, he clicks photos of previously done work, and catalogues them. His prices, he says, are competitive. “For one palm, we charge Rs. 25, and for a full hand, it’s Rs. 100.” During the marriage season, there is good business. But at other times, “it’s only enough for food.”

The job itself, while creatively satisfying, is quite demanding, as it involves sitting down, with a bent neck, for long hours. Besides his work, Shivam is fond of travelling. “I have toured North India fully. And now, I’m also getting to see Tamil Nadu — Coimbatore, Ooty, Kanyakumari, Madurai,” he lists. He also makes trips to Rajasthan to source mehendi powder. “In Sojat city, Rajasthan and Haridwar, Uttarakhand, there are mehendi farms, and you get the best quality. In the rest of the places, there are only a few plants. So when I go there, I stock up 10 or 20 kilos.”

Another place he looks forward to visiting is Delhi, where his family still lives. His wife is a stay-at-home mother, and his children study there. “My daughter is in B.A. second year, my son is in Class 10.” Does his wife also draw mehendi patterns? “No, no,” he says, shaking his head vigorously. Does he trace patterns on her hands? And this time, he says “yes, yes!” and bursts out laughing.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)