Thewa basically means "setting". It is a fusion art, wherein hand carved sheets of 23-carat gold are fused into colored glass to produce beautiful and novel artifacts and jewelry.
I discovered Thewa pretty much by accident. At the time, I was living in Cyprus, training in different fields of glass manufacturing, having done gemology and jewelry manufacturing at an earlier stage. Then I came to India for a holiday, and picked up a book published by the National Art Museum, detailing various museum pieces. And there I saw this pankhi made of glass and gold, which depicted a montage of royal images like a king accessing the throne, getting married, going to war, hunting and so on. I had trained in both glass and gold separately, and always thought of them as totally disparate mediums. And here there was a culmination of both. To me, that is destiny.
Research revealed that Thewa was a fusion of Mughal and Indian art forms. Glasswork came to India in the 15th century, with the Mughal Empire, and then evolved to encompass the Indian love for gold and expertise in filigree work. Thewa involves fusing an intricately worked out sheet of gold (which comprises the design) into handmade, molten, colored glass. When set, this plaque can be mounted on a frame to create boxes, vases, goblets and jewelry. The gold inlay has to be of 23 carat. One carat less and the gold becomes too hard to carve designs into, and one carat more makes it too soft to lift off the shellac bed.
By then we were already thinking of moving back to India. This was in 1995, and I started researching the concept. To my surprise, there was extremely little knowledge that was available on Thewa. It was almost extinct by then, being practiced by only a handful of artisans in a small village in Chittor, Rajasthan.
Thewa artisans were traditionally dependant on royal commissions. With the gradual fading away of kings and queens, this patronage vanished. In post-independence India people just did not have the money to indulge in these luxuries. By the time the country became a little more self-assured, the knowledge of this breathtaking art had totally died out because of the intervening lack of demand.
Thewa originally used hand blown Belgian glass, but since that is increasingly difficult to procure, the artisans would rummage through old havelis for pieces of stained glass. However, this kind of glass is available only in three colors – blue, green and red – which started becoming monotonous after a while. With this started the series of experimenting with Thewa.
Given my background in glass manufacturing, I decided to try making the glass myself. Soon we were creating Thewa pieces on glass in shades of white, black, pink, yellow, powder blue and so on. Today we have 7-8 variations of whites alone – marble white, mirror white, white treated with a mother-of- pearl effect and so on. We even combined Thewa with kundan and diamonds.
Initially Thewa revolved around the peacock design or the static hunting scene. These were extremely beautiful, but to survive in the changing times, art has to adapt and evolve. We shifted the focus to pieces that are ethnic, yet not so pretentious that they cannot fit in with contemporary lifestyles. However, I still feel that we have yet to reach the perfection of the past. The earlier works were far prettier, maybe because the artisans had so much time to work on them. Art needs time and patience. I have yet to see another piece like that pankhi which drew me into this field.
Thewa was originally used only for artifacts. The jewelry came much later. From pill boxes to a sindoor boxes, dressing table sets, jewelry boxes, paandaans, photo frames, mirrors, wall decorations, tiles and so on, the range is endless. However, there is a limitation as to size, because of the involvement of glass. With large pieces there is the danger of cracking during heating and solidifying. That's why Thewa work is usually done on smaller pieces of glass joined together like a grid. One of my favorite pieces in this style is a plaques that we made for a living room wall, where we made a square piece depicting a paalki, surrounded by circular ones of Ram Krishna, Radha Krishna, Krishna and the gopis, Sheshnaag and so on.
Today the artisans, who initially considered Thewa as extinct are excited about passing on the skills to the younger generation. The revival has empowered the village that practiced it by ensuring a steady income for the villagers, concrete housing, telephones and basic education for their children. Thewa has not only won worldwide acclaim for its novelty and beauty, but has also revived and held together a whole culture, a whole way of life. And that's what art is all about, isn’t it?
Roopa Vohra's Thewa creations can be bought at her flagship boutique in Santacruz, Bombay, and specialty stores all over the country.
As told to Anubha Charan, for Design Today, October 2003.