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Unearth the Truth of Indian Mirror Work

When merchant and traveller Marco Polo visited India in the 13th century, he commented that mirror work embroidery from India was more intricate and skilfully crafted than any other that he had seen. Mirror work, otherwise known as shisha, can be traced back to 13th century Persia. Tradesmen and travellers brought the handicraft to India in the same century, during the Mughal era, which consisted of Muslim rulers. Due to this, the use of mirrors and the craft of mirror work stem from traditional Islamic beliefs: the mirrors help to trap or blind the evil eye, reflecting bad luck and evil spirits away from the wearer. This religious significance seeped into Hinduism and Jainism, where, historically, shisha torans were affixed to the front door in order to ward off evil spirits. A toran is a structural gateway often seen in Hindu and Buddhist architecture, and in mirror work, it is often made of cotton fabric embellished with mirrors, metals and embroidery.

A mirror worked torana from Gujarat, 20th century
A mirror worked toran from Gujarat, 20th century

Indian artisans excelled at the handicraft, and mirror work as we know it today in fact originated from India in the 17th century. In Indian mirror work, the use of mirrors widely represents the breathtaking landscapes and nature of India. For instance, the Kathi community of Gujarat, known for incorporating mirror work alongside other handicrafts, traditionally use mirrors as a flower motif’s centrepiece or the eyes of an animal motif. In earlier times, items such as coins, beetles, tin and silver were used as reflective embellishments in mirror work. Mica was then used as embellishments and was later replaced by the use of glass mirrors.

Mirror work produced by the Kathi community featuring mirror centrepieces in flower motifs
Mirror work produced by the Kathi community featuring mirror centrepieces in flower motifs

Mirror work embroidery from Gujarat is dominant amongst the Jat community who reside in the Banni Grassland Reserve in the Kutch district. Ancestors of this community migrated from the Balochistan region (presently spread between southeastern Iran, southwestern Pakistan and a small part of southwestern Afghanistan), bringing with them traditional Balochi techniques of mirror work and embroidery. Mirrors in traditional Balochi mirror work are cut to represent shapes that nature in traditional Balochi life such as flower petals and leaves.

Mirror work produced by the Kathi community featuring mirror centrepieces in flower motifs
Mirror work produced by the Kathi community featuring mirror centrepieces in flower motifs

Traditional Rajasthani clothes are adorned with mirror work embroidery. These traditional motifs and embellishments reflect the colourful, effervescent lifestyle of everyday Rajasthan. Since earlier times, each community in Rajasthan produces its own unique style of mirror work, but it is women of the Jat community residing in Sikar and Jhunjhunu who continue to create captivating animals figures and tree forms. Over time, the craft of mirror work dispersed to other parts of India and became prominently used alongside other handicrafts techniques such as applique, particularly in Haryana and Odisha (Orissa).

Traditional mirror worked garments are still used in Rajasthan today  Traditional Odishan (Orissan) mirror work is often seen alongside applique
L: Traditional mirror worked garments are still used in Rajasthan today
R: Traditional Odishan (Orissan) mirror work is often seen alongside applique

 

Images: Wikipedia, The Swelle Life, The Colour Caravan, Ayurvastram, Maud Interiors