Crafting identity: the cross-cultural design of Manasi Depala

Read time: 12 minutes, 6 seconds

Jonathan Foyle explores the rich and constantly evolving creativity of silversmith Manasi Depala and how cross-cultural influences leave indelible marks on her work.

When Manasi Depala, a young and engaging British silversmith from Leicester declares “I’m from Mumbai. A lot of inspiration comes from that heritage”, there’s plenty to unpack.

‘Anglo-Indian culture’ could mean many things. The subcontinent, rich in monumental evolutions of the Hindu, Greco-Roman, Islamic and Buddhist worlds across two millennia, was provided with undiluted British influences as a nineteenth and twentieth-century imperial dominion. India has familiar relics of Britain in the Georgian mansion that survives as the Governor’s Residence in Hyderabad; a high-street of Surrey vernacular threading through the cool northern mountain capital of Shimla; the Victorian Gothic of George Gilbert Scott’s many soaring public urban buildings, and modern streamlining from the early age of fast cars and poured concrete. Into Britain came India’s ebony, ivory and silver furniture, brilliant manuscripts, silks and jewels galore. India inspired the mughal onion domes of the Brighton pavilion, the astonishing traditionally-built Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple at Neasden in North-West London and a cuisine of rich fragrance we have embraced with two big spoons.

Manasi was born in 1993 in what was still officially called Bombay. Mumbai, as it has been labelled since 1996, is the world’s seventh most populous city, home to 20 million people, one Bollywood, 48 billionaires and a 20% poverty rate.

“I lived in Kandivali in the north of Mumbai and I went to an English-speaking school ’til the age of eight. I remember it being very hot and playing out with other children in the area every evening and I enjoyed it very much.”

Everyone embraced the major festivals, while the Bombay middle class she hails from nurses an old-fashioned domestic decorum. She recalls of her first home:

“All the best cutlery was kept for special occasions. It came out when guests visited, then went back in the cupboard, never to be touched. More importantly, I recall the festivals [Diwali in November and Holi in March] as full of colour, people wearing gold and silver – not real, but imitation – everyone dressing up, and the saris in patterns I still remember.”

The eight-year old came to the cool climate and sequestered, illuminated winter celebrations of England, as her mother’s brothers and sister were English, living in London and Leicester. Home was to be the latter, which features ‘The Golden Mile’ on Belgrave Road, reputedly the longest strip of jewellery shops outside India, and lit for the largest Diwali celebrations outside the sub-continent.

Silver vase with chased flowers on the exterior enclosed in pointed archways. Gold gilding on the inside of the vase.
i Silver vase with chased flowers on the exterior enclosed in pointed archways. Gold gilding on the inside of the vase.

“I absolutely hated it at the start – for the first few weeks of school I was picked on a lot. Every day, I said to Mum “why have you brought me here, away from my friends?” It was a gradual process of acclimatisation. She took to drawing to immerse herself.

Her family were accountants, and assumed that at school she would develop a talent for calculation, just as her younger brother Rushi did. However, while she was accomplished in mathematics she was less smitten by numbers than geometry, especially the shapes and patterns that paved her way toward art and design. “I grew up in England inspired by William Morris” she recalls. And Morris’ late nineteenth-century use of natural forms as repeating patterns to dress a culture of hand-crafting that fought the banalities of mass production may have struck a chord with the Indian traditions she had remembered.

From Queen Elizabeth College in Leicester, she went to the University of Lincoln in 2011-14 for a degree course in Jewellery and Objects, a course that taught her the process of moving from concept drawings to modelling complex forms. Those forms owe much to architecture, in particular Indian buildings. “I’m more inspired by traditional buildings as they have so much more intricate details, like the Red Fort in Delhi, and the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur which is a former palace.”

At Bishopsland, the postgraduate residential centre for jewellers near Reading, she developed her skills further from 2014 – 2015, with a greater understanding of the practice of jewellery making. The following year came the award of a scholarship from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) which introduced her to the renowned Shetland silversmith Rod Kelly who showed her the subtle and painstaking techniques of chasing. She recalls the transformative experience. “The QEST scholarship took place over one year which included a 6-month scholarship with Rod Kelly in his beautiful Shetland Workshop.” Another part of that experience was working at the renowned Bond Street stationers Smythson where she represented QEST as a scholar and demonstrated chasing on a St Christopher dish which was designed by Kelly.

A girl sits at a jewellers bench sawing a sheet of silver metal.

She refers to a piece she simply calls ‘Twisted Vase’. “I would say this has been a ‘game changer’ in my career as a silversmith so far. The reason being it was the most complicated and ambitious piece I made during my QEST scholarship. It is by no means perfect but its shape and the chasing are both satisfying to me as a maker. It was the first piece which made me feel somewhat accomplished and proud of what I have been able to make.”

Her designs for silver vessels evoke temples, notably her Lotus Box that references the modern Bahá’í (multi-faith) Lotus Temple in Bahapur, Delhi, finished in 1986 to the designs of the Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba and built in Greek marble by the UK construction company Flint & Neill. Applied to this complex collaborative inspiration, Manasi’s rippling floral chasing evokes not only the abstracted natural patterns that she drew on from William Morris, but a strong flavour of the period of the 1920s and ‘30s when the port city of Mumbai was one of the world’s great centres of what would become called Art Deco, an ethos of drama and luxury. The international character of this ocean-going age can be seen in geometric flower forms rendered in gilded bronze fascias on stores and hotels in Manhattan, Paris and London as well as Miami, the only city to which Mumbai’s six hundred Deco buildings plays second fiddle. It is a legacy of a pioneering age of modern design (though Mumbai’s are fast disappearing under the wreckers’ ball.)

Much of this cross-cultural influence can be related to her recent reacquaintance with India, visiting to further explore the rich diversity of the country she was born into. “Even before I went, I was interested in Indian architecture. But I was surprised to see how different the Indian states are.” What impressed her most in Northern India was the carved work that was so insistent it seemed to not define form as usual in the West, but blurred the boundaries of the architectural envelope and interior decorations: “It didn’t stop at the windows but continued inside”, she says. And she found license in that. “When I returned, my work changed. Before I went I’d choose the form of my pieces first. But now, I start to design the chasing first.”

Twisted oblong vase. Roses engraved on the exterior using the method of chasing. Gold gilding on interior.
i Twisted oblong vase. Roses engraved on the exterior using the method of chasing. Gold gilding on interior.

She explains that becoming a silversmith takes perseverance and perfectionism. “Since graduation, I’ve motivated myself to go to work every day.” And work means study, thinking, experimentation. “It’s really easy to try to make something ambitious, only to abandon it. There’s no shame in saying a piece is no good and learning from it.”

How does a young silversmith create the right work environment? “For the last four years I’ve worked on perfecting my skills. But in 2018 I found a workshop.” You’ll likely find her at that workshop at the Beaumont Enterprise Centre in Leicester, working at one of the three benches she has assembled. One is for small-work jewellery, the second for chasing, with the tools she requires. (This bench was made for her by Smythson when she had her placement with QEST); the third is for papering, polishing, and preparation for chasing.

“There’s one big window: I do need natural light to work in.”

Her favourite tool is her chasing hammer which she made during her QEST scholarship, the myriad impacts of which render her technique “very close to my heart as it identifies me as a maker and differentiates my pieces of silver from others.”

“My advice to young makers is first and foremost never stop making, even if you can’t afford the silver make in copper, card or paper as this will keep the momentum going and ideas flowing.” Tweet this

When is a piece of silverwork finished? “I don’t think I’m ever finished. But what I learned from Rod Kelly is to have half a day for ‘tickling up’, and that’s it. You have to have the discipline to stop.”

The business of developing a clientele is never predictable, and holds risk. “I can’t make stock. There’s too much money tied up in silver to have it lying around. The pandemic year was tough. But I’ve had a steady stream of commissions, just enough.” This, she combines with a part-time teaching role at De Montfort University, also in Leicester.

She counsels any aspiring artisan of precious metals not to be put off by the material costs. “My advice to young makers is first and foremost never stop making, even if you can’t afford the silver make in copper, card or paper as this will keep the momentum going and ideas flowing.” What about those who want to explore mixed cultural influences as she does? “It takes a lot of courage as there is no guarantee that the potential British consumer will like what you have produced but it’s important to have faith in your own design ability and your ideas and continue to work in a way that is inspiring and follow the ideas you are passionate about.”

Her own passion will soon take her to the south of India. The ancient, hot land of dusty plains and tropical coasts offers several lifetimes of potential influence. The Portuguese arrived on the west coast on 20 May 1498 and departed in 1961, leaving a controversial history of occupation that brought Manasi’s birthplace of Bombay into British rule in 1661, part of the dowry of the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II of England. This Portuguese west coast centered on Goa garnered a distinct Indo-Iberian cultural contribution through trading networks including a UNESCO World Heritage site for its churches and convents, a tempting source of inspiration. Or will she instead be influenced by the eastern territory of Tamil Nadu and the Coromandel coast, her chasing technique perhaps infused by the magnificent ancient relief sculpture showing the ‘Descent of the Ganges’ at Mamallapuram? Manasi’s encounters lay ahead. Through many thousands of footsteps and hammer blows, her own ultimate legacies in silver are yet to be discovered.

Author: Jonathan Foyle | Photography: Manasi Depala and Richard Valencia