The creation of a piece with meenakari work is a labour intensive process involving multiple craftsmen, each performing a specific function to lend his skill at a different stage of completion. It is the culmination of all their efforts that results in a beautiful piece of meenakari work.
The first step is to create the design. This is done by craftsmen called ‘Chitras’. When the base metal is gold, it is the goldsmith or the ‘Sonar’ who doubles up as the designer who creates the designs. Once the design is decided upon, the metal on which the work needs to be done is fixed onto a lac stick. Subsequently, the aforementioned design is engraved onto the metal sheet. The presence of lac underneath then causes grooves and walls. The grooves are meant to hold colour while the walls act as outlines to the design and also reflect light to add to the brilliance of the artwork.
Meenakari Work - Engraving
The next step is the most important part of meenakari work - filling of colours by the Minkars. The colours are essentially oxides in the form of dust or glass powder which are applied individually. After each colour is applied the metal is fired. So the colour that is most heat resistant is applied first since it undergoes multiple rounds of firing - white is applied first and red goes last.
Meenakari Work - Enameling
The Minkar mixes the first colour with water and applies it into the grooves as per the design. The metal is then fired in a furnace at around 750℃. The heat, evaporates the water and melts the colour which eventually spreads within the groove. The metal is allowed to cool and the process is repeated for every colour in the design.
After firing the last colour, the object is cooled for one last time and polished with agate. This lends an intense sheen to the golden walls on the grooves. Traditionally, tamarind water was applied as a last step to clean the surface after the firing. If the design calls for ornamentation with pearls or stones, as is the case in jewellery, the object is then passed on for setting.
The enamel that is sourced from India for meenakari work is expensive, extremely delicate and melts at very high temperatures. Using it limits the number of times the object can be fired. Imported enamel sourced from Europe has a lower melting point and a greater flexibility. So it can be fired multiple times and does not even need a furnace - a heater does the trick. Since imported enamel is cheap and more flexible, it is now being widely used in meenakari work. This has not only reduced effort but has also brought down the prices. Indian enamel, however, continues to be used in exclusive jewellery and lifestyle accessories.
Of late, due to the lack of highly skilled labour, a single worker ends up doing more than one task and sometimes all of them, all by himself.
Image credit: dsource, ohmyrajasthan