Friday, January 23, 2009

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever........

I am back to blogging after a break (or break ke baad) as has become 'fasionable' to say these days, courtesy the 'idiot box'. I did better be in tune with the 'fashion' of the times if I do not want to be labelled as a 'senior citizen' or 'auntyji' or horror of horrors 'a relic from the past' or more precisely 'antique piece'!

I have attended a couple of (what else?) art and crafts exhibitions and also had a look around the famous 'Pottery town' as well as some 'rasta pottery' or 'roadside pottery' stuff sold by some tribals. And came away even more enlightened than before. I was reminded of the words of the great Chinese thinker and philosopher Confucius, "Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it".

The first was an exhibition of 'Handmade Products' with the participation of craft groups from Manipur and Gujarat. On display were exquisite collection of basketry, tie-dye, lacquer, silver and leatherwork, bead embroidery, Shibori textiles, bamboo work, handmade paintings, Bodo shawls, jewellery, colourful kurtas and jackets, some brassware, bags and various showpieces among others. I was quite impressed with the bamboo and cane baskets, carry bags, handbags and garden cushions and mattresses. These were from Manipur. I ended up buying a couple of hand made paintings though. They have now found a permanent place on the walls of my home.

The next was an 'Annual Sankaranti Utsav Cottage Mela'.

I was extremely disappointed to know that I had missed out on the 'Chhattisgarh Handloom and Handicrafts Exhibition' at the same venue by a matter of only three days. I learnt that the main attraction were Kosa Saree, dress material, Kosa Malmal, salwar suit, Jackets, Cotton Saree, Suit, Bed Sheet, Cotton Suiting, Pillow Cover, Parda Cloth, Luhangi, Towel, different items of Bellmetal (Deepdan), Terrakotta, Wooden Craft and Bamboo Craft.

How could I miss this? Oh! How could I? If only I had known and been there three days early. 'If only'.........yeh 'if' bhi naa.............

The 'Cottage Mela' displayed a splendid collection of crafts for the festive season with over sixty craftspersons participating.

The mela has almost everything that one would expect — handloom textiles, decorative items and jewellery from different parts of the country under one roof, showcasing the art of over sixty craftspersons who have been the recipients of national or state awards.

Dokra brass craft from Bastar in Chattisgarh and Meenakari work from Rajasthan, Warli tribal art from Maharashtra, Madhubani paintings from Bihar were some of the most prominent stalls at the exhibition. There were stalls with Kutchi work and embroidered bedspreads, cushion covers from Bhuj, painted ceramics from Uttar Pradesh and some exquisite batik work from West Bengal. Block-printed kurtas and patchwork quilts from Rajasthan were also on display. Craftspersons from Jaipur displayed fine marble work embellished with gold and those from Karnataka showcased sandalwood and other wood carvings that were simply fascinating to say the least. A spread of silver jewellery and some very fashionable terracotta jewellery from Bangalore were on sale too. Along with this exhaustive line of items, furniture from Kashmir too was on display. A mini-India under a single roof! Really!

Needless to say that I had a great time going from one stall to another. I admired the Madhubani paintings, Dokra and other handmade paintings on display, but since I already have a good collection of these, courtesy my previous visits to other such exhibitions, I did not add to it this time. I bought a wall hanging depicting a village scene (farming). The entire scene was made of plastic and then coloured and framed. This was a local art. It was lovely to look at. Trust me! My next purchase too came from yet another local stall selling wood carvings. Here, I got to speak with the artist directly. He showed me his sandalwood works as well as carvings out of teakwood, sesame wood and other 'lesser wood'. These included images of Gods and Goddesses (Lord Krishna, Lord Ganesha, Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvati among others), decorative items like pen stand, flower vase, animal figures, like that of the elephant, trinkets like key chains, paper weights, bracelets, necklace, letter openers, etc. These trinkets came in their sandalwood avatar as well. An aromatic encounter indeed!

There was an exquisite sandalwood carving of the Buddha. Such intricate carving! The artist explained to me that these carvings were to be done with great care and that even if a single arch went wrong, the whole figure will have to be discarded. It was simply marvelous. Truely a feast for the eyes! I bought a sesame wood flower vase and a teak wood version of the 'Ashoka Pillar' - the national emblem. "Satyameva Jayate!"

This means "Truth Alone Triumphs". Is 'officially' the National Motto of India.

Next was a stall displaying the famous Minakari/Enamelling work from Rajasthan. The gentleman at the stall did not make them himself in true sense of the word but had 'karigars' working for him and was quite knowledgable. He shared with me the process of making these 'Minakari' items. Learning via 'osmosis'. I was all ears!

These are done on a copper base. First, the copper base is oxidised, then the 'minakars' engrave the surface of the metal with intricate designs using a metal stylus which is then filled in with special colours called 'Mina'. The copper base along with the mina is then placed on a furnace where the colours fuse and harden to become one with the surface. The designs (done earlier with the metal stylus) become prominent. Then the whole metal is treated with lacquer (on either side of the copper surface, that is) that helps to highlight the lusture of each colour. And viola! you have beautiful minakari artefacts at hand. I bought one such piece with the design of a dancing peacock (amidst a background of brilliant colours: bright red, blue, purple, green and yellow) and several keychains displaying elephants, a peacock, the sanskrit symbol of the word 'Aum', as well as 'India' etched on them, among others. I am all for 'patriotism' and this was my way of 'PDP' - 'Public Display of Patriotism'! Did I just coin the word?

Well, with the way I am contributing to the enrichment of the English language, the British better honour me with a 'Knighthood' or an 'OBE' or 'CBE' at the very least!

There were other items on display too: pen stands, jewellery, fruit bowls, diyas, to mention a few.

Minakari work is 'low maintenance'. Water or dust do not affect the 'works' as such, they can be dusted with a cloth periodically. I plan to hang the one with the 'peacock design' on it on the wall. I also tried being innovative and tied the keychains together with a black thread and hung it up (where else again!) on our terrace garden next to the wind chimes! They add to the beauty of our garden!

To quote the great English poet John Keats, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness".

I was both intrigued and fascinated with this kind of work and decided to learn more about Minakari. Here is what I gathered.

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.

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 champlevé style - where the metal is engraved to create depressions into which colour is embedded and the repoussé 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.

Awesome, isn't it? We are 'Indians' but yet to 'discover India'.

Minakari art was a remarkable innovation of the Mughals in metal craft and can be rightly described as the Mughals' vision of 'Paradise on Earth'.

The great Lebanese-American poet, writer and philosopher Kahlil Gibran had said and I quote, "Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror". Eternal words, indeed.

'Minakari' work is truely enchanting! I was under a spell and still am.
The great French writer and philosopher Voltaire's immortal words came back to me, "It is not sufficient to see and to know the beauty of a work. We must feel and be affected by it".

Next, I moved on to a store selling wall hangings. These were quite unique. I was told that this was a craft from Varanasi. The wall hangings were made on a jute cloth/background and were of two kinds. One, in which numerous designs with silk threads were done on the jute cloth. Sceneries, animals, birds, etc., formed these designs. These usually took three days to complete, each design, that is. The other type was in which designs were done with jute threads on the jute background. These took four days to complete. Here again the designs were various sceneries, animals, birds, etc. The wall hangings came in different sizes and were lovely to look at. There were silk shawls, silk wall hangings on a silk background, zari work, bags, among other stuffs on display. I bought one wall hanging (with designs made with jute threads) depicting an elephant with two huge white tusks walking on dark green grass. I was told that these were washable. This now adorns yet another wall of my house giving it an interesting touch.

I moved on to a stall with Papier-mâché (French for 'chewed-up paper' due to its appearance) articles. These too were decorative pieces, with wall/ceiling hangings/ jewellery box, coaster holders, among others. There were wooden items as well, in which carvings were made on wood, then painted and finally given a lacquer finish for the shine. Brilliant! Flower vase, easter egg shaped showpieces, jewellery box, etc., were part of the latter.

Coming back to Papier-mâché. I was 'quite taken' with the wall/ceiling hangings. They came in various shapes: bells, shaped like a ball, heart-shaped. I finally settled for a couple of bells. They have exquisite carvings/paintings on them filled in with brilliant colours and finally with a lacquer 'finishing touch'. Très Bon!

So intrigued was I with Papier-mâché that I decided to do some research on my own and came away 'wiser'.

Papier-mâché (French for 'chewed-up paper' due to its appearance), sometimes called paper-mâché, is a construction material that consists of pieces of paper, sometimes reinforced with textiles, stuck together using a wet paste (e.g., glue, starch, or wallpaper adhesive). The crafted object becomes solid when the paste dries. Papier-mâché paste is the substance that holds the paper together. The traditional method of making papier-mâché paste is to use a mixture of water and flour or other starch, mixed to the consistency of heavy cream. While any adhesive can be used if thinned to a similar texture, such as polyvinyl acetate wood glue, the flour and water mixture is the most economical. Adding oil of cloves or other additives to the mixture reduces the chances of the product developing mold. The paper is cut or torn into strips, and soaked in the paste until saturated. The saturated pieces are then placed onto the surface and allowed to dry slowly; drying in an oven can cause warping or other dimensional changes during the drying process. The strips may be placed on an armature, or skeleton, often of wire mesh over a structural frame, or they can be placed on an object to create a cast. Oil or grease can be used as a release agent if needed. Once dried, the resulting material can be cut, sanded and/or painted, and waterproofed by painting with a suitable water repelling paint.

To quote the celebrated Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". How very apt.

I winded up my 'dekko' of the exhibitions and was on my way to the 'Pottery Town'.

Photograph: A painted 'pot' - a craft item displayed at one of the 'Cottage Melas.'


  1. The photograph is beautiful! I like lacquer work in Japan. Japan means lacquer.
    India will discover herself eventually. The Ukiyo-e of Japan was used as paper wrapping for goods exported to Europe in olden times. It was the most ordinary thing for the Japanese people. No one thought of it as an art. Suddenly Europeans started admiring the wonderful beauty of Ukiyo-e paintings on the wrapping paper. It suddenly became an expensive art. That is how culture spreads. India will have her day too.

  2. @ Rajdeep: Yes. India will have her day too.

    I wasn't aware that 'Japan' means 'lacquer'... thanks for the info!