Meenakari is the art of coloring and ornamenting the surface of metals by fusing over it brilliant colors that are decorated in an intricate design. Mina is the feminine form of Minoo in Persian, meaning heaven. Mina refers to the Azure colour of heaven. The Iranian craftsmen of Sasanied era invented this art and Mongols spread it to India and other countries. French tourist, Jean Chardin, who toured Iran during the Safavid rule, made a reference to an enamel work of Isfahan, which comprised a pattern of birds and animals on a floral background in light blue, green, yellow and red. Gold has been used traditionally for Meenakari Jewellery as it holds the enamel better, lasts longer and its luster brings out the colors of the enamels. Silver, a later introduction, is used for artifacts 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 Meenakars to look for a material other than gold, was enforced in India.
Initially, the work of Meenakari often went unnoticed as this art was traditionally used as a backing for the famous kundan or stone-studded jewellery. This also allowed the wearer to reverse the jewellery as also promised a special joy in the secret of the hidden design!
Meenakars belong to the Sonar or Soni caste of Kshatriyas and identify themselves with the name of Meenakar or Verma. 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 Meena may pass through many expert hands before being completed.
Meenakari 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.
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 enamelist who applies the colour (Meenakar), 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.
The Meenakars engrave the surface of the metal with intricate designs using a metal stylus which is then filled in with colors. The Meena is then placed in a furnace where the colors 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 luster of each color. Enamel colors are metal oxides mixed with a tint of finely powdered glass where the oxide content controls the shade obtained The color 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 colors to achieve. White and ivory, though difficult, are achieved through a mix of antinomies of potash, hydrated iron oxide, and carbonate of zinc. The colors 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 colors, which emerge only when they are fired in the kiln. The average firing temperature is about 850 degrees Celsius. The enamel colors are bought either from Amritsar in the Punjab or from Germany or France.
Enameling was practiced in many centers in India and each region specialized in its own variation of style and technique. In Lucknow the specialty of the Meenakars was blue and green enameling on silver, while in Banaras the dusky rose-pink or the gulabi meena was the dominant color. The craft was also practiced in Kangra, Kashmir, and Bhawalpur. It was, however, most vibrant in Jaipur (Rajasthan) and in Delhi, and these two centers continue to create Mieenakari pieces of excellence till today.