A new museum in Jaipur trains the spotlight on 2,000-year-old art of minakari enamelling

Jaipur is always a good idea. Those who have visited the city come back often. The lure of staying in a haveli hotel is unmatched, more so since the ones in Jaipur are rather economical. Moreover, it is unarguably the biggest home for arts and crafts in India ever since 1727, when the then monarch of Amer, Sawai Jai Singh II, founded the city using vastu shastra (principles of design) and shilpi shastra (principles of the arts) to build the world’s most beautiful city. He even invited artisans and craftsmen from across India—jewellers, painters, silversmiths, carpet weavers, dyers and printers—to make Jaipur their home.

The tradition continues. The most beautiful of everything in India is almost always found in Jaipur. It is thus one of India’s most popular tourist hubs and, thanks to its growing industry being Rajasthan’s capital, has a large expatriate population. The current ‘maharaja’, so to speak, Padmanabh Singh, from the former royal family, is doing his best to boost foreign tourism here. His mother, the beautiful Diya Kumari, is tipped to be the next chief minister after the upcoming assembly elections.

Digvijay Shekhawat, Sunita Shekhawat and Niharika Shekhawat

Sunita Shekhawat is a well-known jewellery designer based in Jaipur. To celebrate her 25 years in the business, she put together The Museum of Meenakari Heritage (MOMH), which opened this week in the Pink City. “I wanted to be able to give back to the city that has given me so much,” Shekhawat says. Her children, Niharika and Digvijay, are also rather hands-on with their mother’s enterprise. “The museum is truly a vision of the people, for the people and by the people,” Shekhawat says.

The museum has been curated by the well-regarded scholar, author and jewellery historian Dr Usha Balakrishnan, whose mastery of story-telling and research is evident on the walls just as Shekhawat’s mastery in enamelling is showcased in the jewellery. “I had approached Dr Balakrishnan for the ground floor space, and she suggested using it as a private gallery. As designers, we are very dependent on artisans, people need to see the beauty of what they can make with their hands from up-close, and understand the importance of their craft,” Shekhawat says.

We are lucky to have a walk-through tour of the gallery with Dr Balakrishnan herself. “Sunita has revived the art of minakari so beautifully, I thought it would be appropriate to tell the history of the art here,” Dr Balakrishnan, wearing a handloom sari and her grandmother’s ruby-encrusted hair ornament, tells me.

Minakari enamelling is more than 2000 years old, there’s evidence of it in Greece, Mesopotamia and Etruscan cultures. Then it went through a lull and died out in Europe; it was revived in the Byzantine period again, during the Ottomans. But in India, in the excavations of Taxila and Sirkap, two enamelled necklaces were discovered which are now in the national museum. One is white and the other is light blue enamels. This was in the first century; then right up to the 16th century, there is no evidence of enamelling or mention of it in any text. It’s amazing that enamelling is not indigenous to India but has become such a part of its local lexicon.

It suddenly flowered with the arrival of the Portuguese in India. Netherlands, France, and Italy had many trade contacts with India, as we were such a gem and luxury textiles supplier. Cultural exchanges were bound to take place as the foreigners were all carrying their personal jewellery. Jewellery was portable and could be liquidated for cash or spices. European jewellers soon began to work in India as the country became the hub for Golconda diamonds, Burmese rubies as well as Sri Lankan emeralds.

Minakari is an ancient technique that makes intricate designs with coloured glass layered with gold. The gallery is a grandstand of what minakari work is capable of. Different techniques of enamelling like cloisonné, champlevé, plique-à-jour, and basse-taille are showcased here. Many pieces are reproductions of historical pieces, such as oddly-shaped archer’s rings, or a sarpech (turban ornament, which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), or drawn from jewels from miniatures. Perhaps the only gripe here is that each item on display is a reproduction. There’s nothing in the MOMH that is a genuine antique.

An ancient Sarpech reproduction, with permission from the Museum of Fine Arts, London
Benaresi pink minakari

An audio-visual and a real-life showcase present how the artisans work on the jewels, where each colour of powdered glass is set to a different temperature in the kiln separately. European flowers such as poppies and irises are shown as botanicals, then as Mughal representations, and then finally as little enamels in jewels. It is all quite breathtaking and extraordinary, and hard to imagine the human hand and the eye is capable of such finesse in such small proportions.

“In Europe, enamelling work was on the front and the back of jewels. In India it got relegated to the back because we used the kundan technique (gems wrapped with real gold foil before being set in the frame) in the front,” Dr Balakrishnan says.

“Jewellers from across India – Bijapur, Hyderabad, Awadh – all came to Goa to learn enamelling. It then went to Lahore, Delhi, Agra and the Mughal capitals. It eventually moved to architecture and textile too. Benaresi saris that use red and green extra wefts are called minakari saris.”

Different regions of India discovered their own coloured palette of preference. For example, Hyderabadi minakari was simpler and less cluttered, using black with another colour. Benaresi minakari used pink as a base. Mughals discovered their own techniques too. Ab-e-lehr were waves on the gold bae, Boond tola were translucent, Ferozi Zamin was a turquoise base, Nil Zamin was a navy blue base, Sabz Zamin was green, while Safed Chalwan was white.

The Museum of Meenakari Heritage is Jaipur’s newest must-do. It’s a three-story flagship space spread over 2,200 square feet. It is designed by Siddharth Das Studio, which excels in museums and cultural space design, while Studio Lotus has built the edifice. Siddharth’s sister, actor Nandita Das is here for the opening too. As are couturiers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, well-regarded jewellery lovers and aesthetes, and acclaimed product designer Rooshad Shroff. The museum is a delight for lovers of jewellery and art, as images from the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Sotheby’s, the Al Thani collection, and the Aga Khan Museum have been sourced.