By Neelima Agrawal
Exclusively created for emperors and nobles, painstakingly crafted under Royal patronage, jealously guarded, fiercely coveted, theKundan Minakari jewellery truly represents the exotic and breathtakingly beautiful aspect of India, and more so the city of Jaipur that was once an independent Royal Estate. Jaipur is the crucible where this exquisite craft has been nurtured, and where the generations of craftsmen are yet keeping alive this legacy.
Legend has it that it was Raja Man Singh, Akbar’s commander-in-chief, who brought the first five enamellers from Lahore to Amber in 1560 to set up the enamelling centre. This technique evolved to have a distinct red Minakari characteristic that has come to beidentified as Jaipur style. The Rajput king shared with Akbar the great fondness for enamelled jewellery, diamonds, pearls and other precious gems. In 1727, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II founded the city of Jaipur and made it his new capital. He is credited to have invited the Surana Jewellers from Delhi to Jaipur in 1735, to bring his expertise and promote the intricate art of handcrafted gold, enamel, kundan, diamond and precious stone jewellery. Kundan and Minakari craftsmen had royal patronage and support, which helped in keeping alive the traditions and infused it with indigenous perfections.
Minakari – Origins And Influences
Minakari is the Indian name for enamelling, a versatile, exquisite, long-lasting art medium. The technique involves fusing glass to a metal surface by heat. The Romans were already familiar with the craft of enamellingby 6th century AD, developed well enough by the 12th century AD, and used the two techniques of Cloisonné and Champlevé.
Cloisonné method involves gluing thin wires of metals such as copper, silver or gold on the surface to create cells, which are then filled with the powdered enamel in paste form and fired. InChamplevé method, the cells are cut or engraved deeply into the surface of the metal, into which the enamel is inlaid, and then fired at high temperatures of around 850ºC. Post cooling, the surface is smoothened by stoning.
By the 14th Century enamelling was found to be prevalent in the Byzantine Empire. In theIslamic regions of Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Spain, as well as the Ottomans, the craft received royal patronage, and began to acquire religious overtones. The Persians took it all to a new height by AD 224-651, using the Cloisonné enamelling, and in another 100 years, worked out the finesse in Champlevé enamelling too.
The credit for developing the craft of enamelling in India goes to the Mughals. Under the royal patronage of the Mughal rulers, particularly during the time of Akbar, enamelling in India acquired new dimensions. Embellished with nature inspired motifs, leaves, flowers, birds, animals, and calligraphy, enamelling or Minakari reflected Persian influences and Islamic sensibilities. Akbar had great taste for all things beautiful, including gems and jewellery, and he set up special centres for jewellery artisans to craft exotica for him under his supervision and patronage. The regions of Lahore and Multan were the key centres before enamelling earned its indigenous sensibilities. Subsequently it spread to Delhi, Alwar, Jaipur and Varanasi.
The close alliance of the Rajputs with the Mughals, eventually lead to Jaipur becoming the key centre of enamelling. Over time, Jaipur evolved its own distinct Champlevé enamelling style identified by its deep red colour. Varanasi too gained prominence as a centre for enamelling, and developed painted enamelling.Pink enamel is distinctive of Varanasi.
A truly indigenous jewellery making craft, Kundan was very popular with the Royals of yore. Kundan, which in Hindi means pure gold, involves use of ribbons of pure gold to prepare a rim to secure gemstones of different shapes and sizes. Pure gold is used for its ability to get fused in cold state, without use of heat, by simply using pressure. A well crafted Kundan setting is so snug that it does not allow air and moisture to seep inside the piece, thus protecting the brilliance and colour of the gemstone in its pristine state.
The pairing of Kundan with Minakaari makes for alluring jewellery studded with gold crested gems of different colours and shape on one side, and a colourful rendering of artistic imagery in enamel on the other. Two different kinds of craftsmanship are required for both techniques. After the enamelling is rendered on one side, it is taken over for setting of the kundan on the other. This is possible only because pure gold used in Kundan lends itself easily to cold fusing, and does not require heat or soldering.
The Kundan craftsman is highly revered amongst goldsmiths, for it requires special expertise and training. The tradition is more than 450 years old. In earlier times, it was the sole preserve of the royals and nobles. So enchanted were the Mughal rulers with the mesmerising beauty of jewellery, that they restricted their use to only the elite ruling class or their courtiers. Headgear adornments such as ‘sarpench’ were for people of certain designation and positions only. Only people of a certain class were allowed gold on their feet.
The art of Kundan Minakaari was a family tradition amongst the jewellery craftsman. The craft was passed on to the male members of the family by personal training and oral traditions. Enjoying the patronage of Royalty, the craftsman had financial security and access to the best of raw materials to hone and practise the craft as per the demands of the patron. Young trainees started as early as 8-9 years and had to train for a decade and a half before attaining mastery. Expertise would be individually developed in a single aspect of the entire process, goldsmithing, stone setting, meenakaari, Kundan, engraving. A joint family would have one member who excelled in one aspect of this or the other. High value system, and ethos was upheld strongly.
Changing times have impacted these traditions. The nature of patronage has changed with the modern times. Demand has increased with growing range of consumers. Exposure has changed the design sensibilities. The craftsperson is no more in the advantaged situation, despite growing demand. The associated glory with the craft has diminished for the kaarigar or craftsperson. New apprentices have to devote time for a formal education and prefer other lucrative job options, oral training traditions are endangered, and training periods are shorter with growing demand for more workers, thus impacting quality. Like all the other indigenous craft, the heritage of Kundan and Meenakari too is need of modernisation and institutional support to keep the legacy vibrant and thriving.
The centuries old tradition of Kundan and Meenakari has been kept alive by the bearers of this legacy, and even other jewellery houses. Besides Jaipur, Bikaner too has emerged as a key centre for Kundan and Meenakari. I connected with the scions of first family of jewellers, Mr Kamal Surana and Ms Prem Surana of the house ofSurana Jewellers of Jaipur, the direct descendents of the Surana Jewellers who were invited by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh IIfour centuries ago. They continue to uphold the royal traditions, using the best of raw materials, and finest gems and diamonds. They lived in the US for three decades, before returning back to their roots in Jaipur, thereby being able to also create jewellery with western designs for a new consumer in the current times. As expected of a true luxury brand, the Surana Jewellers of Jaipur connect with their elite clientele personally in their very gracious and elegant showroom in Jaipur, Twice a year; they travel to the major metros, to showcase from five-star venues, where their select clientele is invited via personal mails hand-delivered.