Jaswant Kumar Meenakar’s family has been making meenakari jewels for royal families for over four centuries. Now, the master craftsman is holding masterclasses and art residencies for tourists in Jaipur. By Riaan Jacob George
Through the narrow, chaotic alleys of old Jaipur, amidst its labyrinth of buildings, stores, temples, workshops, and traffic jams, I finally reach the residence of Jaswant Kumar Meenakar, a master craftsman with a long family tradition of making coveted meenakari jewels for the rich, famous, and powerful. Jaswantji, as he is lovingly called in the neighbourhood, has started welcoming small batches of art enthusiasts into his home for masterclasses as well as art residencies. And I’m one of the first to get a private lesson!
He leads me into a quiet room, a workshop of sorts, filled with his meenakari tools and creations. Over a few cups of tea, Jaswantji chats with me about his family’s artistic lineage and how he strives to keep the traditional craft alive. But for the most part, the artisan lets his art speak for itself. From this humble haveli, he makes some of India’s most prized and expensive meenakari jewels, earning him the patronage of India’s royal families and VIP families across the world. For the uninitiated, meenakari is an ancient form of enamel painting on gold, silver, brass, or copper, using a small selection of colours and tools. This art form was first popularised in India by the Mughals.
Over the course of the afternoon, Jaswantji shows me some remarkable products: An oversized, highly-intricate pendant, which is flat on one side with exquisite meenakari work, and adorned with kundan work on the other side; a gold-base maang-tikka dating back 60 years (which has not lost any of its shine), adorned with red and white meenakari work and embellished with pearls. Later, he also fishes out memories: a photo album and a commemorative plaque, presented to him by the royal family of Jaipur, felicitating him for his contribution to the arts and heritage of Jaipur.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
T+L India: How long have you been a meenakari artist?
Jaswant Kumar Meenakar: This art form has been handed down generations. I have been practising meenakari since childhood. My family has been doing this for 450 years. My son is involved too, and now, my young granddaughter, after having studied design, is adding a fresh perspective. My father is also a National Award winner for meenakari.
T+L India: How does it feel to be practising a heritage art that has survived the test of time?
Jaswant Kumar Meenakar: I am really happy to be part of this. Moreover, there is a lot of interest these days from art enthusiasts and tourists [who want] to learn about my craft. I am so happy when more and more people ask me pertinent questions about the source of the colours, the different metals used, the origins of the motifs and designs that characterise meenakari work, and the tools. I can say that through the right platform and marketing, people can think of meenakari beyond just pretty jewellery and understand its importance to Indian culture.
T+L India: You displayed your pieces at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. How was that experience?
Jaswant Kumar Meenakar: It was a great honour to explain to people the origins of this fine art of jewellery as well as the influence that the Mughal emperors had on the aesthetic that we see today, and just how well it has survived centuries.
T+L India: You are now hosting masterclasses and art residencies. Tell us more.
Jaswant Kumar Meenakar: I have partnered with Rajasthan Studio, a Jaipur-based organisation that directly links artists to travellers by way of selling ‘art experiences’. Through Rajasthan Studio, you can book yourself a masterclass with me and see what we, the meenakari artists, are doing. As you know, meenakari work is basically enamel painting on gold, silver or metal, an art that was brought to India by Mughal emperors. This is an extremely intricate form of art that is very time consuming. But I could teach you to customise a simple silver pendant and do the meenakari work yourself. This process lasts a couple of hours. But for art loving travellers, what better souvenir could there be, than to make a piece of the city’s most iconic art form. For those with a deeper interest, and the luxury of time, you can even study meenakari art with me through an art residency.