The glitter and glitz of precious metalshas defined royalty, flaunted wealth and symbolized status and power. Over the millennia’salchemists innovated inventive ways to satisfy the ever growing pursuit for the new, the unusual and the bespoke. Today some of these ancient techniques continue to find new uses to meet the demands of the connoisseurs, the well-heeled and the ‘new’ royalty.Among thesetechniques are the arts of the precious metal leaf-beaters.
The micro-fine leaf that they hand-beat – the Varaq, is used in ways both sacred and secular that defy imagination and speak eloquently of the skills of craftsmanship and the abilities of craftspersons to adopt material to myriad usage. From gilding icons, deities, ritual and decorative objects of stone and woodto being applied onto wall muralsand interiors. Theapplications onpaintings extendingfrom the detailed miniaturearts on paper to the ritual textile arts like those of the painted Pichwais of Nathdwar in Rajasthan. Manuscripts illuminated with gold leaf, gold-tooled leather bookbinding and theedge-gilding of booksto its use on religious book covers. Its extensive use in textiles fromclothing to ceremonial and ritual flags and in the past onpalanquin covers and tent hangings.Anintrinsic part of the MateriaMedica of Ayurvedic and Yunanihealing systems, in ancient cosmetic recipes and ofcourse the ubiquitous presence of this edible gold and silver Varaq on special-occasion Indian foods from confectioneries, desserts and nuts to biryani.
The skill and knowledge of making Varaq– the micro-fine leaf of gold and silver continues to be practised acrossIndia.Taking their name from apanni or sheet, one such centreis in the Pannigraahi-kaa-Rasta near SubhashChowk in Jaipur where the seventh generation of the Pannigaar community continue their practice of precious metal-beating.Invited by the founder and first ruler of Jaipur, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh(1688 –1743)to settle in his new city,a speciallydesignated area was allotted to them, both as a residence and a place to practise their craft. Now three centuries later the descendants of the originalsettlers continuetheir craft here. Though their familial and community links with their age old clients has continued over the generations their business has continued to expandand the community of metal leaf-beaters, estimated to be 6000 in Jaipur alone, have expanded beyond their original home.
Gold and silver biscuits of 99% purity are processed through a roller machine that flattens them into long ribbon-like strips of approximately a 1’’width. ShakeelBaig owns and operates several of these roller machinesthat provides thismetallicribbon thatis further transformed into the gossamer -fine Varaq.The ribbonis cut into approximately 1 to 1.5’” and each of these squares is interleaved between the loose sheets of German paper. This special paper, yellow and plasticky in appearance, has a high tensile strength that can take the continuousand repeated hammering without wearing down easily.In the decades past these separator pages were made of animal gut but this is no longer the case.
After interleaving 160 of theseloose sheets of paper are stacked, gathered and placed in a pouch.The leaf-beaters skill is now on display as the pouch is placed on a stone work table that is partially embedded in the ground for stability and is rhythmically beaten without pause with a large hammer. Using one hand to hammer the pouch the craftsperson simultaneously rotates the pouch clockwise with the other hand. With each well placed hammer blow the pouch is moved so that every inch of the pouch is evenly and repeatedly beaten.At regular intervals the pouch is turned over to ensure that both sides of the pouch have an equal measure of hammering. This goes on for a minimum of 3 to 4 hours till the interleaved metal square has expanded evenly -almost to the edge of the paper. Paper sizes vary from a small of 4×6” to a large of 8×10” depending on the use they are to be put too and the micron required.
The next stage is taken over by the women of the communitywho slice each of the Varaq sheets into quarters with a blunt long knife-like tool and transfer them with incredible gentleness on to butter sheets. Inspite of the heat the fan is not turned on as even a breath of air can displace and break-up the delicate Varaq. The deckle edges of the Varaq are cut and any unevenness or gaps filled in and a few final hammer blows even-out and finish theVaraq.The micro-fineVarq is now packed in packs of ten and ready for delivery.
Delivery is often to middle-men, but when it is direct to the client the work is usually extended beyond the supply of Varaq leaf as almost every member of the extended Pannigrahicommunity are equally adept and skilled in the arts of applying the Varaq and their services are called upon by luxury hotels and homes, designers, places of worship to gild walls, ceilings, furniture and otherobjects.
However all that glitters is not gold as in conversation with ShakeelBaig,Afzal Khan and others it was revealed that not only had their incomes remained static, neither was there any recognition or acknowledgement of the Pannigrahi communities knowledge and skills in the arts of making Varaq and gilding it. These gossamerleaf-beaters of precious metals whose craft we see around us continue to remain unknown across the many centres in India.
First published in the Sunday Herald.