Set in gold & glass

Set in gold & glass

I had seen the glittering thewa jewellery displayed in showroom windows in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Bikaner on my many visits to Rajasthan. It was only during my fourth visit that I heard its story, thanks to a friend who was researching on Indian craft traditions. This enabled me to speak to several craftsmen, and also watch them at work.

This handcrafted art uses gold and glass to create exquisite pieces of a wide range of jewellery.

Thewa's origin dates back to five centuries, and the art is native to the Pratapgarh district of Rajasthan, though it's present in Rampur and Indore in Madhya Pradesh.

The origin

Raja Sawant Singh of Pratapgarh was impressed with a thewa product made by a goldsmith. He rewarded the craftsman and also gave him the title of rajsoni (court jeweller). As time passed, this title, as also the craft, were passed on through generations. Even today, the families who practise this craft have the surname rajsonis.

The rajsonis guard their art zealously, so much so that only the male members of a family are taught this craft. The logic explained by them is that the women get married and become part of other families, and thus the secrets of the craft are let out.

Thewa is about creating intricate patterns on delicate gold foils. It's about precision, painstaking attention to details, and patience.

A craftperson engaged in this art said in jest, "Yeh kaam hamaara dhyaan hai. Alagse koi yoga yah meditation karne ki zaroorath nahi! (This is our meditation. There's no need for any other kind of meditation or yoga.)"

Like other traditional arts of Rajasthan, thewa products speak in colours.

What's in a name?

The process gives it its name 'thewa'. The hammering of gold to obtain thin foils is called tharna, while vaada or vada refers to the silver wire which, in its loop form, helps keep the foundation intact. These two are the prime stages in the thewa-making process, hence their combination, thewa. An intricate piece would require a month's time to take form. Before, the craftsmen made only chests and boxes, but over the years, the product range has expanded. Now, there are cufflinks and tie pins, too. Even the techniques have evolved over the centuries, so there are influences of diamond-setting, embroidery, Meenakari etc on thewa designs.

The raw materials include lac, pure 23-carat gold, Belgian glass, strings of beads, silver wires or strips, precious and semi-precious stones, pearls, different kinds of threads, etc. As for the designs, they are inspired by Indian epics, Moghul miniature paintings and contemporary themes.

We were also told that the art work happens during daytime only. It was easy to understand why after watching a few stages of creation. Purified lac is used to create the base or hard bed on which the work commences. The craftsman beats tiny pieces of gold into very slender pieces, which are mounted like canvas mats on the lac bed or plate. This base is warmed and the gold is embedded into it. Fine patterns are sketched and cut into the gold foil using cutters, forceps, etc. Air bubbles on the lac plate are a no-no to avoid dents in the foils. However, if human error does occur, the sheet is melted, and the process begins again.

Carefully pre-assembled silver wires help form a frame called vaada on which the jaali is laid out. The frame is then laid out on a mica sheet. After soldering, the mica is removed and the fragile piece thus obtained is placed on coloured Belgian glass. Chandi ki dibiya (a solid silver casing) helps enclose the product. All this means that though the thewa piece has glitter and looks like an ornate gold object, it consumes only a small amount of gold.

Going strong

The good news is that thewa is flourishing and receiving its due from customers and government authorities alike. The craftsmen we met proudly told us that a thewa product was among the gifts given by the Indian government at the wedding of Prince Charles.

During the British Raj, many Englishmen recognised the value of thewa. You can see specimens of thewa art in British and European museums. Many art exhibitions and seminars organised by the Rajasthan state government as well as private organisations have highlighted the art. India Post even brought out a stamp in 2002 as a tribute to thewa art.

Thewa products are easily available in all the major cities of Rajasthan, in Indore, and at select outlets in Indian metros. They are among the more expensive of the traditional crafts products of the state, but their sheer artistic beauty and elegance make them great value for money.

 

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