Glass relief: Looking at the ancient and neglected form of enamelling

Glass relief: Looking at the ancient and neglected form of enamelling

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 26 March, 2016
(Left to right) Artworks by Triveni Mahajan, Veenu Shah, Kavita Lomror and Kana Lomror.
The art of enamelling, or creating sculptural or relief pieces using enamel as one of the mediums, has a limited number of serious practitioners in contemporary India, some of whom spoke with Bhumika Popli ahead of their exhibition in Delhi.

Enameling, or meenakari, is the practice of decorating metal surfaces with powdered minerals, such as cobalt and copper. It is an ancient art, which came to India in the era of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, circa 1500s. In the past week, the Visual Arts Gallery at Delhi’s India Habitat Center showcased the work of fourteen enamel artists, who come from across the country.

The artists here represent formally diverse backgrounds — of pottery, jewellery-making and painting. But their love for enamel as a medium unites them.  

“I have been trained abroad with well-known enamellists and started training jewellery designers, artists and all those who were interested in this art in India. The community of enamellists in India grew by word of mouth and today we have 20 practicing enamel artists. One can say this is a big number as the process is quite technical,” says Veenu Shah who has been an enamel artist for over fifty years now.

Explaining the process of enameling, Shah says, “Enameling is glass fused to metal at high heat. Vitreous enamels are finely ground glass, like fine sand, or even more finely pulverized and mixed with an oil or adhesive. They may be opaque or transparent, their colors come from the use of various oxides. Enamels are similar to ceramic glazes, except that, whereas glazes are in a raw state when applied to ceramics and go through chemical changes in the firing process that smelt them into glass, enamels have already been smelted. The firing process simply melts them and fuses them to the metal.”

The enamel art show in Delhi aims to create better awareness of the medium among the masses. Enamel can be used in standing sculptures, table pieces, paintings, murals, wall pendants and lighting.

The show aims to create an awareness of the medium among a larger audience and showcase its uniqueness and versatility. Enamel can be used in standing sculptures, table pieces, paintings, murals, Hanging mobiles and wall pendants and lighting.

Enamelling is quite popular as a form all over the world. Its popularity is also evident in its history.The Persians, before the advent of Islam, brought out quite incredible designs using enamelling. But it was the Iranian craftsmen belonging to the Sasanian Empire (the last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam) who invented the form, while the Mongols brought it to India and other countries.

Triveni Mahajan, an enamel artist working under Veenu Shah, explains the way she plays with copper and enamel when creating her pieces. She uses pure copper for the entire process. She says, “For two-dimensional work on copper, I begin with a large sheet of 99.9% pure copper, measure, and cut it using a foot-powered metal shear. The metal must be thoroughly cleaned. Enamels are applied to the base metal using a variety of techniques. These may include dusting the enamel through a sifter; stencil; use of adhesives — gums or oil — to bind the powdered glass for sgraffito, painting, freehand drawing or lettering; silkscreen; and other techniques. The piece is fired at about 1,450 degrees farenheit for several minutes and removed from the hot kiln. After it cools, more enamel is applied; the process of enamelling, firing and more enameling is repeated many times over, which helps in producing multiple layers of images. An individual who enamelled copper tile — each tile of a mural comprised many tiles — will have to be put to fire six to ten, or more times.”

The process of producing a piece of art using enamelling or meenakari is quite a laborious one. It is an intensive and intricate process. The form requires a lot of patience and hardwork. The completion of a particular piece can vary between two days to one year, depending upon the nature and size of an art piece. The price range of enamel art, too, depends on the size, work, process and the artist. It usually ranges from Rs 3,000 to 10 lakhs.

Interestingly, in the past, enamelling in jewellery did not have an ornamental function — it was done on the back of a piece of jewellery rather than on the front.

The art form is quite old and rare and in spite of its vintage, there is hardly any support from the government to promote enamel art in the country. The artists’ works are primarily self-funded, even though the form goes back some 2,000 years and forms part of the artistic heritage of six continents. Enamelling is characterised by brilliant, non-fading colors, tremendous durability, variety of colour effects depending on the angle of light, and tremendous versatility — from jewellery  to bowls and wall pieces, to large-scale interior or exterior murals.

In India, enamelling is traditionally looked at as something limited to craftsmen and jewellers. But the form has gained ground, as serious artists have started to employ it in their creative work. The Delhi show exhibition of enamellists is one example of that. Mahajan says, “We are happy that many artists have picked up this art form. I hope this will grow and we will see new artists displaying their pieces in the next exhibition too.”


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