All that glitters

All that glitters

All that glitters
The glitter and glitz of precious metals have defined royalty, flaunted wealth and symbolised status and power. Over the millennia, alchemists innovated inventive ways to satisfy the ever-growing pursuit for the new, the unusual and the bespoke. Today, some of these ancient techniques continue to find new uses to meet the demands of the connoisseurs, the well-heeled and the ‘new’ royalty. Among these techniques are the arts of the precious metal leaf-beaters.

The micro-fine leaf that they hand-beat – the varaq, is used in ways both sacred and secular that defy imagination and speak eloquently of the skills of craftsmanship and the abilities of craftspeople to adopt material to myriad usage – from gilding icons, deities, ritual and decorative objects of stone and wood to being applied to wall murals and interiors. The applications on paintings extend from the detailed miniature arts on paper to the ritual textile arts like those of the painted pichhwais of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, to the manuscripts illuminated with gold leaf, gold-tooled leather bookbinding and the edge-gilding of books and religious book covers.

Age-old craft

Varaq’s use can be seen extensively in the world of textiles from clothing to ceremonial and ritual flags and in the past on palanquin covers and tent hangings. It has also been an intrinsic part of the Materia Medica of Ayurvedic and Yunani healing systems and ancient cosmetic recipes. And, of course, how can one overlook the ubiquitous presence of this edible gold and silver varaq on special occasion Indian foods such as confectioneries, desserts, nuts and biryani.

The skill and knowledge of making varaq – the micro-fine leaf of gold and silver – continues to be practised across India. Taking their name from a panni or sheet, one such centre is in the Pannigrahi ka Rasta near Subhash Chowk in Jaipur, where the seventh generation of the Pannigaar community continues their practice of precious metal-beating even today.

Invited by the founder and first ruler of Jaipur, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, to settle in his new city, a specially designated area was allotted to them, both as a residence and a place to practise their craft. Now threae centuries later, the descendants of the original settlers continue their craft here. Though their familial and community links with their age-old clients has continued over the generations, their business has expanded, and the community of metal leaf-beaters, estimated to be 6,000 in Jaipur alone, have expanded beyond their original home today.

In detail

Gold and silver biscuits of 99% purity are processed through a roller machine that flattens them into long ribbon-like strips of approximately one-inch width. Shakeel Baig owns and operates several of these roller machines that provide this metallic ribbon that is further transformed into the gossamer-fine varaq. The ribbon is cut into squares of 1 to 1.5 inches length (approximately), and each of these squares is interleaved between the loose sheets of German paper. This special paper, yellow and plasticky in appearance, has a high tensile strength that can take the continuous and rep0eated hammering without wearing down easily.

In the past, these separator pages were made of animal gut, but this is no longer the case. After interleaving, 160 of these loose sheets of paper are stacked, gathered and placed in a pouch.The skill of the leaf-beaters is now on display as the pouch is placed on a stonework table that is partially embedded in the ground for stability and is rhythmically beaten without pause with a large hammer.

Using one hand to hammer the pouch, the craftsperson simultaneously rotates the pouch clockwise with the other hand. With each well-placed hammer blow, the pouch is moved so that every inch of the pouch is evenly and repeatedly beaten. At regular intervals, the pouch is turned over to ensure that both sides of the pouch have an equal measure of hammering. This goes on for a minimum of three to four hours, till the interleaved metal square has expanded evenly – almost to the edge of the paper. Paper sizes vary from a small size of 4x6 inches to a large size of 8x10 inches, depending on their use and the micron required.

The next stage is taken over by the women of the community who slice each of the varaq sheets into quarters with a blunt long knife-like tool and transfer them with incredible gentleness onto butter sheets. In spite of the heat, the fan is not turned on as even a breath of air can displace and break up the delicate varaq. The deckle edges of varaq are cut and any unevenness or gaps filled in, and a few final hammer blows even out and finishes the varaq. The micro-fine varaq is now packed in packs of 10 and ready for delivery.

Almost every member of the extended Pannigrahi community is adept and skilled in the arts of applying the varaq and their services are called upon by luxury hotels and homes, designers and places of worship to gild walls, furniture and other objects. However, all that glitters is not gold as in conversation with Shakeel Baig, Afzal Khan and others, it was revealed that not only had their incomes remained static, neither was there any recognition or acknowledgment of the Pannigrahi community’s knowledge and skills in the art of making varaq and gilding it.
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