Cheers to the Gulaabi Meenakari of Varanasi – Modern art forms are easily accessible but to enjoy a perspective on high-quality, illustrious, traditional, exemplary work, it becomes important to dig into the roots of Indian art and its patronage. Some of our age-old cities have survived the influence of unique cultures and have thrived as glorious historic and heritage centers. Once such enigmatic city which grew to be an epitome of art and culture of its times is Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. There is a complete truth in the saying that while the city has an intriguing as well as an overwhelming spiritual side to itself, its rich history of arts and crafts is nothing less than winsome.
Every narrow lane of Varanasi can be a revelation of sorts and yet you may not be able to discover all that it has to offer in terms of history, culture, legends and folklore. This colorfully chaotic city is vehemently famous among people who seek the higher purpose of life and look forward to freeing themselves from the cycle of life and death (attainment of Moksha). While the ancient temples, panorama of the ghats, rituals of the last rites, ablutions and the daily aarti (prayers) by the banks of holy River Ganges define its character, the existence of unique art forms in its old neighborhoods testify its love for art and artists.
THE ‘GULAABI MEENAKARI’ LEGACY OF VARANASI
Locally made handicrafts, textiles, Banarasi brocade, sarees, wooden lacquerware, toys, metal repousse, ornaments, clay and woodwork add a whole new dimension to the fascinating character of Varanasi. “Gulaabi Meenakari”, an artistic method of enameling and filling designs with translucent pink happens to be one of the most fashionable crafts of the city of salvation for decades.
The local artisans learned the tricks of the trade from the horse’s mouth as Persian craftsmen visited the court of Avadh in Lucknow. From its inception in the 17th century to the 20th century when pink enamel became prized throughout the land, the stunning pieces of jewelry made from effervescent pink color of meenakari earned an indisputable popularity among those who had an impeccable taste in fashion and style. It was highly sought of by the princes and aristocracy and till this date, the art form allures its lovers for it exhibits opulence and royalty. The pink meenakari is distinguished by the use of pink over white enamel.
After having turned the pages of its glorious past, the present will make you uncomfortable. An extremely prosperous and popular art of its times is struggling to survive the changing and challenging times. The major reason is the decline in the number of distinguished artisans and the dwindling demands.
To understand this art where the surface of metals is fused by brilliant colors, we must talk about meenakari first. The word Mina, the feminine form of “Minoo” in Persian, means heaven. The azure color of heaven is used prominently. Use of other vibrant colors like green, red, pink and motifs such as flowers (phool-patti), animals/birds like peacocks, elephants and parrots make it significantly impressive.
The art of enameling is vouched to be one of the most technical and tedious forms of all metal decorations.In the word of one of the artisans that I met, this is a form of art that is very delicately and diligently preserved by our ancestors. It amazingly complements the brilliance of metals.
When cannot talk of meenakari without touching upon the prevalent styles in India. There are three styles of doing it. “Ek Rang Khula Meena” is the form in which the gold outlines are exposed and a single transparent color is allowed to dominate the design. Next comes, “Panch Rangi Meena” a multicolour style where five colours are used, namely, green, light blue, dark blue, white and red. And third type is the one we are talking about. It is inspired by the pink blush of roses. Varanasi which has been practicing this style for decades. To increase its popularity, the art of “Gulabi Meena” was given the GI (Geographical Indication) tag a few years ago.
As I interacted with one of the old practitioners of this art, I also learned that gold was the most preferred metal as it held on to the enamel well and longer than other metals. It was only after the Gold Control Act that the enamelers has to experiment with other alternatives like silver and copper.
WHAT IS GULAABI MEENAKARI (PINK ENAMELING)?
Indigenous is best learned where it is practiced for years. Some of the most authentic works of Gulaabi Meenakari or pink enameling can be discovered in the narrow hedged-in roads in Kashi (yet another name for Banaras or Varanasi). The art of decorating a metal surface by fusing pink strokes on a white enamel requires patience and precision. The way it is carried out by some of the most skilled craftsmen of Varanasi is worth admiring. Some of these traditional Meenkari designs have been in demand forever and are sold for highest of prices.
Brought down from Persian Court of the Qajar dynasty, Gulaabi Meenakari or pink enameling was introduced to India by the Mughal patronage who were extremely passionate about everything related to art. The Mughal successors supported this craft till the artisans from Persia imparted their knowledge to the Indian artists. The artisans who took this delicate art form for passion or living came to be known as Meenakars.
Meenakari from Varanasi is world known for its signature pink color which is obtained from the gulab (rose). The bold, beautiful and bright pink jewelry is characterized by pink brush strokes or dusky rose pink on an opaque white ground or white enamel. A piece of art may take 1 month to 6 months for its completion depending upon its complexity.
In some families the legacy has been carried forward and almost fifth generations of artisans are still involved in this traditional style of meenakari. The families are still living in the same manner and working on the same craft with the same diligence. To name a few, Brindavan Das & family, Baldeo das (Ramdas) & family and Jagarnath Singh & family. Mr. Ramesh Vishwakarma is also a well-known artisan from Varanasi who has been practicing this art from 33 years.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
After the designer, goldsmith and engraver play their part each, the piece of jewelry reaches the enamellist (meenakar) and he fills in the color to enhance the look of the product. Some artisans have years of practice and they are capable of performing all the tasks.
- To create an intricate design on any metal surface, the article piece is fixed on a lac stick and a pattern is engraved on it with a metal styli.
- The designs create space or grooves to hold the color.
- After ensuring that it’s a clean and neat design, it is filled with white enamel.
- The meena is finely ground and mixed with water and also a small amount of rose oil, is added to help the fusion.
- Next, the metal piece is sent to a furnace where the color must fuse in with the metal to become one. The process of heating enhances the richness of the colours.
- And then Varanasi craftsmen delicately add pink to the predominant opaque white enamel.
- Some of the latest jewelry designs don’t use the metal engraving technique at all, and the pieces are created by using only the enamel process.
ARTISTS and AWARDS (Researched from Internet)
Varanasi is home to many accomplished artisans. One of the local artist, Mr Mohan Prasad Verma won the national award in 1984 and later he was also conferred the Shilp guru award in 2004 for his great contribution to Gulabi meenakari.
Mr. Balram Das R/o Ramghat was felicitated by the state government in 1992 for his exemplary skills in silver enameling.
Also, Bindu Rani D/o Shri Ramji Prasad, resident of Brahmghat made the city of Varanasi proud by winning a state level award in 1997 for one of her creative meenakari works.