Minakari/Enamelling

Minakars belong to the Sonar or Soni caste of Kshatriyas and identify themselves with the name of Minakar or Verma. This is a hereditary craft and it is rare that outsiders are allowed to acquire any knowledge of their craft. The process followed is long drawn and complex in which a single piece of mina may pass through many expert hands before being completed. The traditional process starts with the designer (nacquash, chitera) and moves on to the goldsmith (sonar, swarnakar), the engraver who engraves the design (kalamkar, khodnakar), the enamellist who applies the colour (minakar), the polisher (ghotnawala, chiknawala), the stone-setter (jadia, kundansaaz), and the stringer (patua), all of whom are ingredients of an important chain of craftsmen that create the finished product. However, due to paucity of skilled tradesmen often a single artisan wears many hats as it is the experience gained over the years that comes in handy to perform a multiplicity of tasks.

Enamelling or minakari is the art of colouring and ornamenting the surface of metals by fusing over it brilliant colours that are decorated in an intricate design. The Mughals invented the art of enamel or minawork metalcraft and it was popular with both the Mughals and the Hindu princes of Rajasthan where it was used for creating precious objects and enriching jewellery. Gold has been used traditionally for minakari jewellery as it holds the enamel better, lasts longer and its lustre brings out the colours of the enamels. Silver, a later introduction, is used for artefacts like boxes, bowls, spoons, and art pieces while Copper which is used for handicraft products were introduced only after the Gold Control Act, which compelled the minakars to look for a material other than gold, was enforced in India.

Initially, the work of minakari often went unnoticed as this art was traditionally used as a backing for the famous kundan or stone-studded jewellery. This also allowed the wearer to reverse the jewellery as also promised a special joy in the secret of the hidden design!

The minakars engrave the surface of the metal with intricate designs using a metal stylus which is then filled in with colours. The mina is then placed in a furnace where the colours fuse and harden to become one with the surface. Thereafter the piece is then gently rubbed with a file and cleaned with a mixture of lemon and tamarind that helps to highlight the lusture of each colour. Enamel colours are metal oxides mixed with a tint of finely powdered glass where the oxide content controls the shade obtained The colour yellow is obtained through the use of chromate of potash, violet through carbonate of manganese, blue through cobalt oxide, green through copper oxide, brown through red oxide, and black through manganese, iron, and cobalt. The brilliant red is the most difficult of colours to achieve. White and ivory, though difficult, are achieved through a mix of antinomies of potash, hydrated iron oxide, and carbonate of zinc. The colours are applied according to their level of hardness, beginning with the hardest. Before the enamel is applied, the surface of the ornament is carefully cleaned. In their raw form these mixtures do not always show their true colours, which emerge only when they are fired in the kiln. The average firing temperature is about 850 degrees celsius. The enamel colours are bought either from Amritsar in the Punjab or from Germany or France.

Enamelling was practised in many centres in India and each region specialised in its own variation of style and technique. In Lucknow the speciality of the minakars was blue and green enamelling on silver, while in Banaras the dusky rose-pink or the gulabi mina was the dominant colour. The craft was also practised in Kangra, Kashmir, and Bhawalpur. It was, however, most vibrant in Jaipur (Rajasthan) and in Delhi, and these two centres continue to create minakari pieces of excellence till today.

Two forms of enamelling that are popular in Jaipur and Delhi are the champlev? style - where the metal is engraved to create depressions into which colour is embedded and the repouss? form - in which a thin metal plate is embossed over a prefabricated die which has the design etched on one of its sides. The metal plate is moulded over the die by stamping on it. Once this is done the grooves are etched with the help of a metal stylus that has its front flattened and shaped like a wedge to be used for carving and engraving the base metal after which the colours are filled into the areas created. The powerdered mina is then dispersed with a metal spatula into the palette and with the help of long pointed needles of different thicknesses the colour is applied on the carved or moulded metal plate. Tools for the final cleaning of the piece include an iron needle and a file. Creepers and vines, flowers (particularly the lotus), birds (especially the parrot and the peacock), paisleys, geometric patterns, and calligraphy are some of the more commonly used designs. The colours used are red, green, white, and blue. Minakari is not just confined to traditional jewellery but diversifies into more 'modern' products, often with a copper base, including bowls, ashtrays, key chains, vases, spoons, figures of deities, and wall pieces.