Growing up, I have always been in awe of my mother’s jewellery. Out of the different precious designs that she proudly adorns, her dearest is a meenakari necklace studded with uncut diamonds. Every person who knows and appreciates jewellery has to have a Meenkari design in their collection somewhere in between the stacks of pearls and golds. Even though Meenakari stands out from traditional designs, it is one of the most sought out jewellery pieces in today’s time. It is in demand, especially the ones that are done on gold.
The word ‘Meenakari’ (or Minakari) is a combination of two terms ‘Mina’ which means paradise or heaven and ‘Kari’ which means to do or to place something. As the etymology suggests, the art of Meenakari has its origin from Safavid Persia and was brought to the subcontinent by the Mughals. Distinct to Iran, Meenakari was (and is) done on metals like gold, copper, silver and brass. Back then, Meenakari was done on walls, buildings and ceilings for decoration purposes but looking at its intricate details and design, the size of the canvas was reduced for ornamentation. Since then, women were able to adorn themselves with these enamelled jewels.
Meenakari, in simple terms, is a process of enamelling liquid metal or glass over copper, brass, and gold. Due to their different properties, these base materials react to the enamel in their different ways which makes each piece one of a kind. In recent times, one can see Meenakari making its way on ceramics. The quality of the liquefied metal for the enamelling differs on the basis of the base material. Irrespective of any material, Meenakari sits the best on gold. If not gold, one can possess Meenakari in other metals too. It is available for everyone.
There are two categories of Meenakari that include one colour enamelling (ek rang khula) where a single colour is used for the entire design and five colour enamelling (pachrangi meena) that includes five different colours. Both of these styles are beautiful on their own. One who loves to play around with bold colours would go for the latter and the former’s simplicity attracts people of a similar taste.
The art of Meenkari requires patience, dedication and decades of hard work to be perfected. It is a complicated process which is passed down for generations in India. The ultimate judgement factor is the overall precision and finishing of the jewellery. Right from the beginning, the process is harrowing both physically and mentally for the artisans involved. Even though this enamelling is done on different materials, the human labour that goes behind them is more or less the same.
To add a pop of colour, Meenakari jewellery in Indian is primarily done over bright colours and on their deeper shades like green, red, yellow, and blue. In recent years, pastel colours have also become a staple for Meenakari. Apart from the enamelling, Meenakari jewels boast precious gemstones like uncut diamonds and pearls. These pieces also have hand-painted motifs that add to the beauty.
An original Meenakari is all done by hand – the liquefaction of glass/metals, creating motifs, the long burning & cooling processes require a delicate touch that is possible only. As said earlier, it takes weeks if not days to create one fine piece of Meenakari. Another intricate part of Meenakari is outlining of gemstones with molten metal and wire. This part alone requires special techniques that only skilled Meenakari artists have. All of these factors together contribute to its high cost in the market. As consumers, we not only possess a piece of jewellery but also years of experience in mastering an age-old craft of Meenakari. The tangible is secondary here because it is the human labour that we pay for.
While the blue blood uses molten/crushed precious and semi-precious gems for different colours in their jewellery, the locals use metal and glass because it is affordable.
The influence of the Indian – Hindu culture on this Persian art form was on its peak during the 16th century under Raja Man Singh ji of Mewar. He was a patron of Meenakari jewellery and brought in Karigars from different places. Under him, Rajasthan became the hub of India’s finest Meenakari jewellery. Presently, Women prefer these over conventional ornaments because of their modern design and their history rooted in tradition.
In the Indian/South Asian context, the art of Meenakari is dominated in the sphere of ornaments. Now as we progress in time, it is slowly making way to the more utilitarian – decorative spaces of the household. Therefore, the art is moving out of our lockers to the living room in the shape of vases, utensils, storage boxes and even as paintings.
The cultural encounter that Meenakari had in India is evident in the use of different motifs. Inspired by the flora and fauna, Indian Meenakari imitates animals like elephants (that signifies royalty), peacocks, camels and various flowers like lotus and marigolds. As the art form evolved and got finer, it started including motifs of Hindu gods and goddesses, figurines that are considered divine and who ward off the evil eye, especially for the Indian brides. One can find these deities central to the jewellery, surrounded by floral motifs.
Contemporary Indian weddings are incomplete without Meenakari. Brides are choosing these multi-coloured jewellery designs of meenakari over the traditional ones because of its unique composition. It also adds colour to the wedding trousseau and does the work perfectly. Gems and stones used in Meenakari make it stand out from the crowd. While for women there is an entire collection of designs, men can flaunt Meenakari cufflinks with their wardrobe. Truly it is an attention grabber.
Meenakari has also made an impact on the world outside South Asia. Due to its bohemian looking style embellished with multicoloured stones and gems, consumers from the west find these attractive and often use them as a statement piece with their outfits. Currently, the demand for Meenakari is seen both in the subcontinent and abroad.
Meenakari, over the centuries, has evolved in its unique way. Though the art never originally belonged to us, it did adopt the multicultural society of India with ease. The present-day Meenakari is a perfect example of India’s colourful, tangible past that epitomises the influence of different cultures on the nation. Meenakari found a new home in India that has nurtured this art form to flourish over centuries. We embraced it, we chiselled it with our traditions and now, its story influences people around the globe.
Written By Harsh Aditya