In fact in the realm of jewellery in India, the pink enamel minakari is as important as the red minakari work of the more famous Jaipur tradition and a saying among jewellers goes, “Lal mina ke liye Jaipur, gulab mina ke liye Varanasi ’’ meaning that for red enamelling, one must go to Jaipur and for pink enamelling, Varanasi, it is. The attractive pink enamelling work of Varanasi was described as ‘‘painting on metal’’ since the designs were painted with brush on white enamelled background.
Pink enamel is said to have been brought to Varanasi by the Persian enamelists, who had come to India, around early 17th century, when the glory of the Mughal court was at its peak.
This enamelling style had attained the peak of perfection at the Persian Court at Isfahan during the Qajar dynasty (1795-1924). Pink enamel is the term, that has popularly become associated with this traditional enamelling style because it includes areas of painted enamel, generally flowers, executed in translucent pink on an opaque white ground, although it is not uncommon to find blue used in the same way.
All other enamelled areas on the object are created in the champleve style, which makes this a mixed style of enamelling. Till a 100 years ago, thanks to the patronage of the royalty and wealthy merchants, the pink enamel jewellery of Varanasi had a glorious run. But now it has fallen on bad times and despite the efforts of local jewellery firms, the number of karigars who can create these masterpieces has been reduced to just 10.
These 10 can still do enamelling work with gold, and there are about 25, who enamel on silver. Varanasi minakari deviates both in technique and colour palette from the Jaipur tradition. The link with Persian enamels is all too apparent.
This art form requires high degrees of skill, creativity and lots of patience. The artists who do this work are known as Meenakars. The metal article or the ornamental piece to be enamelled is fixed on a lac stick. The designs are drawn on it by the artisans known as Chiteriaas.
Motifs may include, flowers, leaves, vines, birds, animals like elephants, fishes etc. Then the engravers known as Gharias engrave the outlines of the design. This creates grooves or pits for holding the colours, in which enamel is applied. The depth of the grooves, when filled with different colours, determines the play of light.
This also enhances the beauty of the colours, by the play of light and shade touching the enamelled surface. Then it is thoroughly cleaned and enamel dust of required colour is applied, and fired at high temperatures.
The heat of the furnace melts the colour which spreads evenly. Each colour is fixed in this manner till the entire article is filled with colours. The colour which is most heat resistant is filled first and so on as the piece is fired a number of times. White or pink colour is supposed to be the most resistant and hence applied first and red the least, so it is filled in first and last. The ornament is placed on mica plate to avoid direct contact with fire.
After cooling, it is polished with Sohan or corundum or agate and again fired. It is then treated with acid derived from tamarind or lemon. The entire piece can be covered in enamel or just in parts. Gems can also be set in the jewellery as required and the setter is known as Kundansaaz or Jadiya.
Unfortunately, decreased demand from clientele enamoured by western and modern styles, have rendered a cruel blow to this art. This tradition in jewellery making has virtually disappeared also because of the rising costs of gold in the mid-90s.
Today although there is a revival in Indian jewellery styles like thewa (gold enamelling on glass), the art of pink enamelling has remained dormant. The last great craftsman Babbu Singh died in 1923, nearly 90 years ago. The emphasis today is on enamelling silver objects mainly for the tourism driven markets. But the styles are limited to representations of peacocks/animals/elephants .
But after jewellers of Pratapgarh succeeded in reviving the thewa art of enamelling, there is hope of a revival. Jewellers like Reva Shankar Pandya of Varanasi are doing their best to create an upsurge and hopefully, this timeless craft won’t go extinct .