Every morning I wake up to the sound of the fort guards unlocking the museum gates of Mehrangarh Fort and to the gentle sweeping of the floor of the courtyard below my bedroom window. I live inside a 15th century fortress in the very last of the royal courtyards known as the zenana, or ladies quarters. My room occupies a space that once was the residence of a Maharani, or one of the Maharaja’s many queens. I enjoy the last minutes of peace until the museum opens at 9am and the guards greet crowds of tourists. As I exit my room and walk down the stairs to my office in the curatorial department, a custodian affectionately calls after me “Good morning Laura Soni!” He has taken it upon himself to give me an ‘adoptive’ Indian last name which is that of the goldsmiths’ caste. Being a jeweler and metalsmith, I take it as a compliment! In fact, I have a jeweler’s bench set up in my room where I make jewelry into the dark hours of the night.
Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur was a military stronghold, a royal residence, and an administrative center for governing the princely state of Marwar up until the 19th century. Today, it is a private museum trust. Residing inside the fort allows me to “live the history”of the space, which has in turn informed my work in researching the museum’s decorative arts and jewelry collection. I spend my days in the vaults of the collection storage looking at silver wine flasks, hookahs, bronze ewers, and gold inlaid boxes. One-by-one, each object is given thorough research for the museum’s records. Using my expertise as a metalsmith, I discern how the object was made, where it was made, and how it was used at court. It feels very much like the work of a detective and I enjoy the challenge. Yet my favorite part of the day has become “chai time” when all work stops for a brief 15-20 minutes in order for the staff to enjoy a cup of masala chai. It is this moment that allows the best informal conversations to surface between my colleagues and me.
I split my time between the Fort and the Soni community, otherwise known as the sonars or goldsmiths. I make my daily hike down the sandstone cliff trail and into the labyrinth-like urban fabric of Jodhpur with my satchel around my arm, filled with my jewelry tools and works-in-progress. Kishan-Ji and his student, Gopal, have become my teachers. In the small, one-room workshop inside Kishan-Ji’s home we all sit cross-legged on the floor in front of our wooden workbenches as we set colorful glass stones into necklaces, rings, and earrings. The peaceful tranquility of Kishan-Ji’s shop is sometimes broken by the radio playing old Hindi songs and outbursts of singing. The atmosphere is fun and playful, which helps combat my occasional frustration in setting stones. Kishan-Ji tells me to be patient and practice; the skill will come.
The goldsmiths community in Jodhpur have been surprisingly open with their trade secrets and in showing me their techniques. I have enjoyed the company of the kundan stone setters, the enamel artists, the die cutting workers, the blacksmiths, the sword makers, the Bengali artisans, the bangle makers, and many others: these craftsmen have enriched my knowledge of India’s great history of metalworking.
Before the sun sets I, again, walk through the city and hike up the sandstone cliff trail back up to the fortress for dinner with several colleagues who work and live in the Fort. In the night time, when the tourists have left and the museum is closed, the Fort feels as if it is our domain. Our after-dinner evening walks along the ramparts, through the empty courtyards, and up to the roof where we can see the stars are moments that I will never forget. Living in India is challenging at times, but in moments such as these, it is simply magical.