Meenakari is a crystal form of glass fused with metal oxides like silver, gold, copper and zinc. The meenakari of Varanasi is known by its pink colour and is known as gulabi meenakari.
The Pink painted enamel style was brought in Varanasi by the Persian enamellists around early 17th century during the Mughal era. This enameling style reached its peak of perfection at the Persian Court at Isfahan during the Qajar dynasty. The art of Meenakari was prosperous till about hundred year ago. Today there are only a handful of craft persons. They work on gold enamel, and silver enamel jewelry and other objects.
The meenakari, enamelling, in Varanasi is characterized by pink brush strokes on white enamel. Unlike the vibrant enamelling in reds, greens and blues of Jaipur and Delhi, where the white enamel is left stark, the Varanasi craftsmen delicately add pink to the predominant white enamel. The artisans are called meenakars. It is a unique craft in which meenakars make items like religious figures of gods and goddesses on silver and gold sheet, various types of traditional ornaments and decorative items, motifs, including flowers and birds and animals on gold and silver metal.
Chased and engraved areas are filled in with enamel, which is composed of chemicals similar to those contained in glass and its base is vitreous with a small percentage of metallic oxide that is used as a colourant. Hollow silver forms are filled in with lac to give them weight. For enamelling, the meena, enamel, is finely ground and mixed with water. A little itra, rose oil, is added to help fuse the enamel. The water is soaked up by a cotton wick and the piece fired in a small electric kiln. The enamels fuse at different temperatures so they are fired in order of hardness. The craftsmen have extended their repertoire from jewellery to silver trinket boxes, decorative elephants, birds, and stationery. The pieces are enamelled in deep greens and blues, characteristic of silver enamelling; and parts like the underside of the elephant’s trunk, its ears and lotus blooms are done in gulabi or pink meenakari. The colours used in the Banaras Gulabi Meenakari are predominately natural and leadless dyes.
The motifs most often seen in the work are phool-patti (flowers and foliage), peacocks, parrots and elephants.
The art was learnt from Persian craftsmen who visited the court of Avadh at Lucknow in the 17 th century. The business is controlled by a middleman who gets the work done and supplies the finished product to buyers and sale outlets.
A flourishing and prosperous industry till a century ago, meenakari is confined to a few artisans today who are struggling to keep alive this art of colouring or decorating a metal surface by attaching or fusing pieces of different mineral substances over it. It is considered as the most alluring and technical of all metal decorations. Earlier, Banarasi Gulabi Meenakari was done on gold but now the craftsmen use other metals like silver and copper. Escalating cost of gold and silver has diminished its demand. Earlier, the craftsmen were in this field for generations. In the past, the city had over 250 artisans of this craft but today only 50-60 people are engaged in it.
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