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The glitter of gold on glass

Trisha Bhattacharya,July 1,2012 18:30 IST

Thewa art is a secret, traditional and rare Rajasthani art of embossing intricate and finely carved sheet of gold onto molten coloured glass. The word thewa literally means setting. The exact origin of this art is still a mystery.

However, it is known that this art was conceived about 400 years ago, during the Mughal era, in the state of Rajputs. It is said that it was started by a particular family of Marwar who shared the secret of its making amongst themselves. It is also believed that this art had the support of Maharawat Samant Singh of Rajasthan, during the latter half of the 18th century.

The small fortified town of Pratapgarh, a district in Rajasthan, is credited as the birthplace of thewa art. The creative process in particular is said to have been invented by Nathu Ji Sonis, who call themselves Raj-Sonis, or specialist thewa craftsmen. For these mastercraftsmen (the Raj-Sonis), this art is a sacred profession.

The legacy of this fine craft is passed from father to son only and not to anyone else, because they fear that this art, which is known only to them, will be revealed to all. Therefore, the technique, tools and usage related to this art were passed on from generation to generation for many years, and not to outsiders. Due to this zealous guarding, the making, in its entirety, is not known.

Many members of this family have been awarded by the state and national governments as well as the UNESCO, over the years, for their contribution. Also, to highlight and encourage this art, the government of India issued a special postage stamp in 2004. The government of India also gifted Prince Charles a special thewa gift on his marriage.

In the last century, thewa makers improvised and prepared settings in fine gold wires in the Cannetille style (contemporary European style). Thus, this work is renowned all over the world for its beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria Albert Hall are some of the museums across the world that house art pieces of thewa; many national and state museums are also home to valuable pieces of thewa craft.

Thewa is an art which reverberates with life, as motifs in gold used in thewa represent the heritage, art, culture and soul of Rajasthan; they become visuals in gold and narrate folk tales of valour and romance, stories of the state’s nature, lifestyle and its core essence. It also showcases the work of craftsmen from Rajasthan.

Thewa art is varied in its usage, and some are quite popular in its use, like in the case of thewa jewellery. Chittorgarh in Rajasthan is famous for thewa jewellery.

The process of preparing thewa jewellery is time consuming, detailed and elaborate due to the intricacy and finesse involved. One whole piece is handcrafted by craftsmen over a period of a month.

Shards of terracotta are broken down and are combined with chemicals and oil to prepare a thick paste (a lac-resin compound). This paste is spread on a wooden board and a gold sheet(s) of about 23K purity, of a certain thickness, is set onto this paste. This sheet has a free-hand design etched on it. It is then covered in dark paint such that this free-hand etching is visible, and piercing the sheet with fine cutting tools is possible. Excess gold is removed later.

The coloured glass, on the other hand, is initially treated to give it a coruscant effect, so that the gold work once fused, looks even more remarkable. Coloured glass (which is the base), onto which a pure gold sheet is fused, is actually a unit.

Thus, each unit consists of a levelled piece of translucent glass, of different shades, some reminiscent of semi-precious stones like sapphire, emerald and ruby. Once the gold foil is mounted onto the base, this unit is again mounted onto a separate silver foil, and is then set into a piece of jewellery or some other item. Different pieces of thewa jewellery come in varied shapes like round, oval, square or rectangular.

Royal and real

Thewa jewellery are items of beautification and adornment, where elaborate geometric and a wide variety of patterns in glistening gold caress in permanence the cool surface of translucent imbued glass.

It not only depicts in its patterns, scenes from Hindu mythology, but also Mughal courtly scenes, hunting scenes and flora and fauna motifs. Hence, the themes are myriad — from historical scenes like that of the battlefield, portraits of rulers, and Krishna playing with gopis, to elephants, lions, dancing peacocks, deers, and fairies, to themes of plants with delicate flowers and leaves.

Exquisite gold designs on hued glass make bestselling and elegant jewellery items. The colours of glass, which is the base, are wide ranging at times, and are royal and real. From brilliant shades of green, red, pink, dark blue, royal blue to lighter tones, they are all soothing and electric to look at.

Coloured glass turned into dainty finery, with shimmering gold work on them, are alluring to women everywhere. Thewa jewellery is widely available as pendants, earrings, necklaces, rings, hairpins, bracelets, brooches, chokers, lockets, coat-buttons, tunic-buttons, cufflinks and jewellery boxes. These gold-on-glass pieces look like they belong to royalty.

Besides jewellery, thewa art is also used to create exceptional glass decoration items like glass paintings, antique chandeliers, wine glasses, glass coasters and a wide variety of flower vases, flasks, lamp shades and glass photo frames. Floral and myriad patterns are etched on gold foil, which is fused to molten coloured glass moulds, which are basically glass items cast in varied moulds.

Thewa jewellery and other items are, however, expensive. The intrinsic value of gold does not add up to the price of a thewa piece, but the unparalleled skills and elegant detailed work that go into making it. Nowadays, sterling silver is also used instead of gold. Therefore, possession of a piece of thewa jewellery is a beautiful choice as every piece is no less than a chef-d'oeuvre.

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