Thewa is an art of fusing gold sheets on to glass but different to enameling. Different type of designs are engraved on the gold sheet and put on to the glass and encased in silver.
Thewa is a craft practised by a few craftsmen who specialise in the art of fusing filigreed gold sheets on to glass. The craft of thewa is still practised by hereditary craftspersons in the small fortified town of Pratapgarh in district Chittorgarh of south Rajasthan and in Rampur in Madhya Pradesh. This unique craft uses plaques of glass as its base material. Till today the tradition of using red, green, and blue glass continues.The technique of thewa has been used to create extremely interesting ornaments, plates, trays and jewellery, as well as small objects for daily use. This skill and the expertise required to create thewa objects is unique to Pratapgarh and Rampur. However, in the 19th century the towns of Indore and Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh also achieved widespread fame for this jewellery craft.
The art of thewa can be traced back 400 years when the rulers of Pratapgarh gave a land grant to the families of artisans in the area practising the craft. The artisans, all Hindus, belong to the Soni caste. Unconfirmed sources claim that the technique actually originated in Bengal where it did not do well, leading the Bengali artisans to move westwards in search of patronage. They are supposed to have finally settled in Rajasthan where they taught the Soni family the thewa technique. Women do not practise this craft and the daughters are not taught as it is feared that they may take the family secrets with them to the home(s) of their in-laws. T.N. Mukherji in his book Art Manufacturers of India which was compiled for the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888 mentions the technique of thewa as a kind of imitation enamel that is very effective in appearance. He also states that the technique used was kept a family secret.
The process followed in thewa work is detailed and intricate. Broken pieces of terracotta, finely ground, are mixed with chemicals and oil to produce a thick fine paste. This is spread on a wooden piece that serves as a base for the mixture. The gold sheet (pure 24 carat gold of 40 gauge thickness) is then spread over the mixture and the design is etched on it. Black paint is spread over the gold sheet so that the design becomes clearly visible and can be worked upon further. The craftspersons then work on the pattern, removing the excess gold and creating the filigree design. The gold sheet is peeled off gently, by heating it. This has to be done very carefully for the fragile gold crafted sheet can break or lose shape. The gold patterned sheet is now thoroughly washed and all extra substances are removed with a mild acid. A piece of glass of the same size as the gold pattern is chosen and encased in a frame of silver or silver wire. The thin sheet of patterned gold is then fixed to the silver border. While it is still hot, the rim of silver and film of gold are delicately slipped over the edge and pressed on to the surface of the glass. The piece is then heated until the gold and the glass are firmly fused together. A thin silver foil is fixed on the other side of the glass to provide the final finish.
Only gold sheets of the highest purity are used, for this purity lends itself to the thewa technique. All gold is heated to remove impurities before it is rolled out and the sheets (mostly of 40 gauge thickness) are cut. As the work requires intricate detailing and skilful fusion of the gold into the glass base, the wastage is high.Overheatingcan break the glass or melt the gold. Alternatively, if not treated properly the gold filigree does not fuse well and soon comes off. It is only after two years of intensive experimentation and many failures that an artisan can learn the the thewa technique with 98% quality.
The craftsmen at Rampura have been using Belgian glass, from windowpanes of old houses and buildings, as the base for thewa articles but this source has now been exhausted and finding glass with the right colours is becoming difficult. As a result, thewa pieces can now be found in a new range of colours and materials: lemon, white, black. Some of these are original, while others are obtained, often using plastics. Experimentation with other metals, including silver, is also being done. The motifs taken are equally from Hindu mythology and Mughal courtly scenes and include floral motifs, enactment of historical scenes, animals like elephants and deer, winged fairies, scenes from the battlefield, and picturisations of rulers. Products made include jewellery and ornament pieces, boxes, plates, photo frames, belts, perfume bottles, and vases. Unlike other gold jewellery the value of a thewa piece comes not from the intrinsic value of gold but, instead, from the skill required to fashion an article.
Some of the finest examples of the thewa art can be seen in museums in India and abroad. Presently the craft is witnessing a revival in India, with thewa jewellery pieces being made available in urban markets through designers.