The Women of Kundan and Meenakari
June 5, 2019
India is known for its rich culture of adornment and fine gold work, yet almost all goldsmiths are male. In a country that rigidly observes traditional gender roles, women are often occupied with domestic work, while the practice of jewelry making belongs almost exclusively to the male realm. The community that has been making gold jewelry for generations fears that if men teach their wives and daughters their trade, it may give them a level of independence that will destabilize the traditional family structure. As an American metalsmith studying the art of kundan jewelry making, I repeatedly find myself in conversation and collaboration with male jewelers. My many months at the jeweler’s bench made me curious if there were any female master jewelers. If so, what are the circumstances that allowed them to learn the trade?
I found some answers in Jaipur, where I met the women of the Kala family, most notably the award-winning kundan jeweler Tulsi Kala.
Kundan jewelry is unique to India, a Persian art form that came to India via the Mughal invasion in the 16th century and has been practiced here ever since. Kundan means 24k fine gold. It is a process of using thin sheets of gold, or kundan as it is called, and packing them around the gems with iron tools. The layers of compacted gold sheets are mechanically hardened by kneading, and then delicately carved with iron chisels. The process of making kundan jewelry is a specialized skill within the goldsmithing community, one that is traditionally practiced by men.
Tulsi Kala learned the art of kundan from the age of 14 at the encouragement of her older brother and teacher, Ram Chandra Kala, who had unusually open views in the 1980s compared to his peers. In 1998, Tulsi was the first female in India to be nationally recognized for her kundan jewelry, an honor that she calls one of her proudest moments, and an affirmation of the quality of her work. She specializes in kundan work in jade, creating Mughal-inspired gold floral motifs studded with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.
Saroj Kala, Tulsi’s sister-in-law, has also learned and perfected this art. She heats the gold, with cow dung, for a total of four hours, refining and purifying it. Then she smooths and polishes the fine gold with water and an agate stone. After folding the long strip into a bundle, Saroj gently beats the gold for three long hours. The process is delicate and time-consuming. Saroj is a woman who balances domestic obligations with her contributions to the Kalam family’s gold jewelry business. She momentarily left me at her work station and disappeared into the back room. As I waited for her to finish the last hour of gold beating, wondering where she had gone, she came back with a full tray of chai she had made for the workers and me. Saroj’s daughter, Shakti, who has also learned the art of kundan setting, jokes, “Saroj is my mother. She makes food for us, and she makes food for our art.”
Shakti is a jewelry master in her own right, but recently took a break after giving birth to twins. Childrearing is often considered an Indian woman’s primary obligation to the family, and for a female jeweler this means suspending one’s craft for a minimum of two years, which can be detrimental to one’s skill. Kundan is a highly specialized craft that relies on daily practice and intricate muscle memory to manipulate the tools. Without regular practice, an artist loses her familiarity with the materials and must train again. When I asked Shakti if she missed kundan jewelry making, she said, “Yes, I miss it so much. When I sit at the bench, I feel centered.” I suppose her life today is anything but “centered,” with rowdy, twin baby boys whom she loves very much but who keep her constantly busy.
Preeti Kala, who married into the Kala family, is an enamel artist who balances childrearing with her artistic practice. She says she would sit at her workbench with her baby by her side in a sling cradle, gently rocking her back and forth while juggling her paints. Preeti learned from her father, Raj Kumar Sankit, a master of the traditional art of enameling known as desi meena.
Meenakari, as enamel is known in India, has been passed down through the generations in Preeti’s family, but Preeti is the first female in her family to learn and practice this art. She began at the age of 17, when she took a class in New Delhi on contemporary enameling. Her designs are a mix of traditional Indian colors and modern shapes. “I wanted to do something different with enameling and break away from the more traditional patterns that artisans practice in Jaipur,” she says. Preeti dabbles in cloisonné enamel as well, and she recently began to experiment with plique-à-jour, a backless enamel that is transparent like stained glass. As she was showing me examples, her eight-year-old daughter came into the room for a hug and kiss. I asked Preeti if she will teach her daughter enameling, and she replied with a smile, “Of course, I would love to teach her if she expresses interest.”
Laura Marsolek is a 2018–19 Asia Foundation Luce Scholar studying traditional jewelry making and metalsmithing in India. This essay is adapted from her blog, Laura in Rajasthan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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