The initial usage of Thewa art was to adorn chests and boxes gifted to royalty. Today the craftsmen’ expertise have extended to photo frames, mirrors, cufflinks, brooches, trays, plates and personal accessories like rings and necklaces which are adorned by men and women alike.
The skyrocketing prices of gold have made this art appealing to people who look for pocket-friendly value and design.Though the amount of gold used is minimal, the eventual product gives an impression of a gold-rich heavily ornamented piece. A 4′ X 6’ photo frame requires only 5-6 grams of gold, but it gives the illusion of a gold feast to the eyes. The entire procedure is meticulously carried out in daylight only.
The beauty of Thewa also lies in the fact that it is pure technique which gives birth to it. The raw materials are simple and few. The amount of work and skill that goes into handcrafting each piece adds immense value to it. There is no other form of art which sculpts out day to day life, battles, legends and hunting expeditions in meticulous detail on such a small surface.
The Sonis are very particular about the craft honed by their ancestors. This art is passed on only to the men of the family. The fear of skill getting diluted with marriage into other families is what keeps them from divulging to the daughters. The training starts at the early age of ten for the boys.
Thewa art has won nine National Awards since 1966 and has gathered fame around the world. It is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A few 250 year old pieces are said to be a part of the Queen Elizabeth’s collection.The Indian Government has issued a stamp in 2002 featuring a splendid piece of Thewa art on a plate.
These honours are trivial before the dedication of the artists who engage in this art which demands enormous precision. Shri Giresh Raj Soni, a descendent, explains the immeasurable patience that this art bestows, in these words ”I’ve lost the ability to ever get angry.
The craft originated in a small estate called Deolia in the district of Chittorgarh (Rajasthan). Prince Bika of Mewar, the ruler, shifted his capital to Pratapgarh, 16 kms to the east, due to scarcity of water. Subsequently, a community of artisans came to settle in this region too. In 1707, a goldsmith amongst these artisans by the name of Nathu Lal Sonewal designed this style of gold-work. It soon caught the fancy of kings and princes and Maharaja Sumant Singh patronized this art in 1765 and granted a jagir (land) to the family of Nathu Lal Sonewal. The Maharaja conferred the title of Rajsoni (Royal goldsmith) on him. His descendents have internalised this craft since then.
It was soon noticed by the British women during the Victorian times. They bought Thewa jewellery and also carried it back with them to their homeland. Thewa was recognised by European jewellery historians for its finesse and skill.
The Soni family later shifted to Mandsaur, a bigger city with more opportunities for their art.
A 23 karat gold metal sheet is traced with patterns which are mythological, religious or depicting daily events. Artisan also take inspiration from minituare paintings. Certain motifs reflect events like hunting scenes of the kings and patrons, with the hunting party, animals and birds amidst delicate foliage. This is called a shikargah. The depictions of royalty proudly portrays Maharana Pratap, his famous horse Chetak,the palanquins, elephants and rest of the extravagance in minute details.The mythological plethora involves popular subjects such as Srinathji, a form of Krishna installed at Nathdwara, Radha-Krishna, Ram parivar, Hanuman, Mahadev and the mother goddesses.
Apart from the traditional designs, Thewa has also adapted to the recent times. It has blended many other techniques like Meenakari, diamond setting along with various materials like beads and threads to bring about a contemporary flavour. Thewa in jewellery is more in vogue today than other traditional products and the favoured patterns are floral trellises, peacocks and elephants
The skill of making Thewa was kept a family secret. It was ardently reserved only to the men of the Nathu lal Soni family over generations.The daughters and son-in-laws too are kept out of the circle to avoid the skill from spreading out. Even researchers were not given details of the exact process. For this reason the art is not able to reach up to the widespread demands.
Thewa art takes its form atop a hard bed of purified lac.Gold sheets, placed over this bed, are cut out into fine traceries laden with stories.
Raw materials for this art is few and simple.The purified lac base, on which the sheets are spread is called a ‘chapadi’. The metal sheets used are of silver or 23 karat gold. The various other raw materials are belgian glass, beads, threads and stones.
High precision is needed in cutting out the designs on the sheets. The tiniest error will lead to the entire sheet being wasted.All such discarded pattern sheets and cut outs are melted again and prepared for the fresh work.
Small sized tools are used for this delicate art like ‘Hummaney’ (forsep), ‘Katya’ (cutter) and ‘Tankale’ (to cut out the jaali). A wooden plank is the base for spreading out the lac. Other fine chisels and sharp tools are also used to work on the entire piece and assemble it like Chugga (pliers to bend wire), Ambur (pliers to pull wire), Jaintee-wire gauge, Gulsam (divider) and Vena (used to make dots). A small gas lamp is kept burning to heat the tips of the tools.
The gold is smothered to milimetere-thin sheets and placed on the lac bed. The lac is then heated slightly such that the sheet sinks a little into the bed and is held tighter. The gold sheet is then worked upon by cutting out the designs and patterns.
Once this is done, the filigree is laid out in a frame of silver wire called ‘vaada’ to lessen the risk of damage. The silver wire frame used in this task is pre-assembled on brass dies and soldered to precision. This framework is then very carefully set upon a sheet of mica using forceps. This enables the two metals(wire and sheet) to be soldered easily. After the soldering, the mica sheet is removed.
This piece is placed over a sheet of coloured Belgian glass. The filigree and the glass is bonded with a technique only known to the craftsmen. The framework is enclosed in a solid silver casing called ‘chandi ki dibiya’ with a thin silver foil at the bottom to add to the lustre.
List of craftsmen.