Meenakari or enameling a unique combination of gems, enamel pigments and precious stones, was born as a result of Shah Jahan’s aesthetic vision that transformed enameling into a sophisticated art. The outcome was a range of items, from jewellery to imperial thrones. The motifs used in the original meenakari work were flowers, plants, scrolling vines and animal forms, amongst others.
The famous 18th century Chettinad necklace made with meenakari is composed of five rows of small rudrakshas completely encased in gold.
The jewellery with meenakari speaks volubly of the unmatched caliber of the artisans of the past and present and their ability to generate some of the finest designs. Says Gunashekar, “If observed closely, the nakshatra design, by the Diamond Trading Corporation, is an offshoot of the seven-stone diamond earring (vaira thodu) concept in the South, which is purchased by most of the parents of prospective brides. Keeping the seven stones as base, thousands of designs have been produced by the DTC to suit the changing trends.”
Located in the midst of a blazing hot desert area, Rajasthan is the hub of Meenakari work in India. Owing to it being produced locally, meenakari work both in jewellery and artifacts is a part of almost every household in Rajasthan. The craft, however, did not originate in India. Enameling, which is essentially what meenakari work is, is said to have been brought to India from Persia by Mughal invaders. The word ‘Meenakari’ itself is derived from the Persian word ‘Meena’ which refers to the azure colours of heaven. Oddly enough, meenakari work was initially used in architecture, to adorn the walls, pillars and roofs of the Mughal palaces. It is said that the begums loved it and asked for it to be a part of their jewellery. Over the years, the designs that go into meenakari work have evolved to become a beautiful amalgamation of Persian and Indian styles. The artisans who handcraft these beautiful enamel pieces are known as ‘Minkars’. In the 16th century, Raja Man Singh of Amber was impressed with the craft and invited these Minkars from Lahore to Jaipur. The Minkars then moved to Jaipur where they chose to settle and Jaipur eventually became home to this age old craft.
The technique of Meenakari requires a high degree of skill and application. The piece of metal on which meenakari is to be done is fixed on a lac stick. Delicate designs of flowers, birds, fish, etc. are etched or engraved on it. This leads to the creation of walls or grooves to hold color. Enamel dust of required colour is then poured into the grooves and each colour is fired individually. The heat of the furnace melts the colour and the coloured liquid gets spread equally into the groove. This process is repeated with each colour. As each colour is individually fired, colours, which are most heat resistant, are applied first, as they are re-fired with each additional colour. As a rule, white is the first colour applied and red the last. After the last colour has been fired, the object is cooled and burnished or polished with agate. The depth of the grooves filled with different colours determines the play of light.
Both silver and gold can be used as a base for meenakari. A limited number of colours like gold, blue, green and yellow are applied on to silver, whereas all available colours can be applied to gold, making it the preferred medium of enamellers. The Minkar often works with a team of craftsmen. As meenakari is generally done on the reverse side of kundan jewellery, the Minkar has to work with the goldsmith, the engraver or ghaaria, the designer or chitteria and jadiya who applies the gems on the kundan or gold. The finished produced is a marvel of the expertise of these different craftsmen and their techniques.