Inside a ‘meenakari’ museum in Jaipur

A new museum, created by Sunita Shekhawat, highlights the ancient enamelling technique of ‘meenakari’, while showcasing the skills of jewellery artisans



The history of jewellery in India is about 5,000 years old. From the Indus Valley Civilisation till date, gold, silver and gems have been engraved, carved and fashioned in myriad ways to symbolise power. These objects have also become a means to display the country’s craftsmanship and gold and silversmithing heritage.

Yet, efforts to document India’s diverse jewellery legacy—an enduring source of inspiration for brands across the world—have been limited. Some government-led and private museums have tried to showcase jewellery, but efforts have largely been restricted to heirlooms and antique pieces.

“Old jewellery was often melted to make something new. It was used as currency. Then the British looted us, so a lot of the history was erased,” says jewellery historian Usha R. Balakrishnan. “Plus, many people who possess old, antique jewellery are not open to sharing them. Many of our temples and monasteries are full of jewellery but, again, they are off limits. Even our museums have old pieces hidden in the basement.”

Also read: For young jewellery buyers, design is paramount, says Radhikaraje Gaekwad

The Museum of Meenakari Heritage, which is set to open to the public on 26 March in Jaipur, Rajasthan, aims to change this. It is perhaps the first of its kind initiative to highlight meenakari or enamel work, a centuries-old Persian technique that continues to flourish in Jaipur and is renowned for its vibrant and intricate designs on metal surfaces like gold and silver.

Spread across 2,200 sq.ft, the museum is housed inside a red sandstone haveli shaped by Rajputana, Mughal and Art Deco influences with handpainted ceilings and latticed jharokhas (carved windows). The collection includes over 120 reproductions of jewellery pieces—dating as far back to 15th century—that once belonged to India but are now in international institutions like the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Sotheby’s.

The museum is housed inside a red sandstone haveli shaped by Rajputana, Mughal and Art Deco influences with handpainted ceilings and latticed jharokhas.

The museum is housed inside a red sandstone haveli shaped by Rajputana, Mughal and Art Deco influences with handpainted ceilings and latticed jharokhas.
(Courtesy Sunita Shekhawat)

Along with the archival pieces are 300 images obtained from museums, private collections, art galleries and auction houses, narrating the history of enamelling. There is also a collection of 60 newly made jewellery pieces, including a choker decorated with ruby-red enamel and a pair of earrings adorned with delicate pastel flowers, to showcase various techniques of enamelling like ab-e-lehr (gold base asymmetrically chased—a technique used to indent a metal object—and engraved in the form of waves with transparent enamel), and boon tila (chased and engraved gold base with translucent enamelling).

'They (colonialists) took our jewellery and personal history from us, but they can’t take away our skill,' says Sunita Shekhawat

‘They (colonialists) took our jewellery and personal history from us, but they can’t take away our skill,’ says Sunita Shekhawat

“They (colonialists) took our jewellery and personal history from us, but they can’t take away our skill,” says Sunita Shekhawat, who owns the three-decade old eponymous jewellery label, famous for its meenakari work, and the force behind the Museum of Meenakari Heritage. “India still has the artisans that can produce the same work we did centuries ago.”

Shekhawat made all the reproductions and new pieces with the help of around 100 artisans in her atelier.

A 'meenakari' artisan at work

A ‘meenakari’ artisan at work
(Courtesy Sunita Shekhawat)

The self-funded museum, designed by Siddhartha Das Studio and curated by Balakrishnan, is as much a treat for the eyes as it is an educational experience for design students and jewellery enthusiasts.

It’s no small feat to spend months etching one gold or silver plate with steady hands, before filling the depressions with paste-like pigment made from powdered glass, and firing it all in a kiln (India mostly has traditional kilns) to make one earring. The desired colour of the enamel depends on the temperature in the kiln, which is monitored by the artisan—a knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. “A minute extra of the heat will dramatically change the colour of the red from mild to dark, for example,” says Shekhawat. She works with over 100 artisans, all from Jaipur.

A 'meenakari' wall plate, created in the Sunita Shekhawat atelier

A ‘meenakari’ wall plate, created in the Sunita Shekhawat atelier
(Courtesy Sunita Shekhawat)

The first section of the museum is an introduction to the craft. Enamelling work was introduced in India in the 1500s when the Portuguese landed in Goa. “Traders, missionaries and diplomats, all brought with them jewellery, since it was portable and became a form of currency,” says Balakrishnan. “Soon, the enamelling form was transferred to Indian artisans since India was a hub for gemstones. Places like Goa, Hyderabad and Jaipur became centres of meenakari, and artisans started interpreting it in their own ways.”

While the Europeans wore meenakari inside pendants and necklaces in pastel shades, Indians moved the enamelling to the back of a gem-encrusted piece, as unseen beauty meant only for the wearer. The erstwhile royals of India became such devotees of the technique that eventually they wanted everything, from dagger handles and plates to sword cases and snuff boxes, enamelled. The colours became brighter and motifs more about flora and fauna—as visible in an 18th century huqqa (water pipe) in glided silver and enamel from Lucknow, loaned from the archives of The David Collection Copenhagen.

A 'jigha' that's part of the 'meenakari' museum collection

A ‘jigha’ that’s part of the ‘meenakari’ museum collection
(Courtesy Sunita Shekhawat)

So deep were the colours that they resembled gemstones. A portion of a beak of an enamelled parrot in a brooch, for instance—part of Shekhawat’s reproduction of a turban ornament—is such a deep, glossy red that it appears as a ruby is dangling from the tip. A few steps away from the brooch is a miniature painting, showing a maharani wearing a necklace that has hints of enamel work.

Shekhawat reproduced the necklace with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. “Reproduction is challenging, because finding the same stone is difficult, and often it’s very expensive,” says Shekhawat. “Like, you don’t get Kashmir sapphire anymore, so you look for the second best option.”

Towards the end of the museum is a wall that educates the viewer about the most crucial part of the enamelling, colours. Alongside traditional colour names like fakhtahi (dove grey blue) and ferozi (opaque turquoise) placed in framed tiles, are Shekhawat’s reimaginations of colours. Her green, kachnar ki patti or tote ka par, is a more translucent green like the feathers of the Indian parrot and the leaf of the kachnar tree, and the koon-e-kabouter (pigeon blood) is a deeper red with a blue-ish tone.

It’s a way to tell the viewer that the past can live in the present to help shape the future.

 

The Museum of Meenakari Heritage is set to open to the public on 26 March in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

 

 

 

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