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Rajasthan is a magnificent desert state dotted with the poetry of forts, palaces and color, replete with the history of Rajput splendor. Visualize a stunning, brilliant, cobalt blue and oxide green piece of jewelry nestling and flashing in the brown-yellow desert sands as it picks up the sun’s rays. You are now looking at a five-hundred year old craft tradition that is mesmerizing you, beckoning you to pick up this intricate enamel piece of jewelry and adorn yourself with the story of its journey. This incredibly beautiful object is born out of the craft practice of meenakari or enameling and Rajasthan is its most famous mother.

Enameling is an old and widely adopted technology used by Egyptian, Greek, Celtic, Russian and Chinese civilizations. European cultures developed enameling in their own unique ways and the craft slowly began to traverse across the mountains east towards the Islamic world, most noticeably, Persia, to find a permanent home here in India. Raja Mansingh of Amber brought master enamelers from Lahore to Jaipur in the 16th century and over time, it acquired a distinct Indian flavor, while still retaining the Persian touch.  Jaipur is now the centre of traditional meenakari. However, distinct styles of enameling have evolved in Bikaner, Udaipur, Nathdwara, Delhi and Varanasi.

Simply put, meenakari is the art of coloring the surface of metals by fusing brilliant mineral colors over it.  Earlier, meenakari was a twin craft of the well-known Mughal art of kundan which is jewelry studded with gem stones.  Meenakari went largely unnoticed because meena work was used as a backing for the more famous kundan. But one had to simply reverse it and experience the secret joy of the hidden design! Now, meenakari is a stand-alone craft and is recognized world over for its glorious Mughal colors of ruby red, emerald green, brilliant blues and yellows as well as for its easy wearabilty.  Modern meenakari is a versatile accessory for modern times with a facile capacity to transmute an antique craft to complement modern needs.

Meena work was initially done on gold because of the metal’s capacity to enhance the luster of the enamels. Now silver is used as is copper and sometimes even white metal, making it more affordable and contemporary. Traditional meena motifs include flowers and foliage, peacocks, parrots and elephants. Add to it, whorls and spirals, waves and swirls, cuboids and triangles and we have a very contemporary design palette.

 

THE PROCESS

The design is first prepared and given to the goldsmith or sonar who forms the article. Then the designer or chhatera engraves the salai or pattern on the metal with a steel stylus. Delicate designs of flowers, birds, fish, geometric shapes etc. are etched on it. The meenakar or enameler applies colors into the grooves. Each color is fired individually at high temperatures, helping the liquid spread equally into the groove. After the last color has been fired, the object is cooled and burnished with agate and the finishing is completed.

The enameler or meenakar belongs to the Sonar or Soni community and identifies himself with the name ‘Meenakar'. The craft is passed on hereditarily from generation to generation and outsiders never really know the full secrets of the art of meenakari. Meenakari is a long and laborious craft form that can take up to several months to complete one piece of jewelry.