Mirror work, otherwise known as shisha, is one of the most captivating characteristics of traditional Indian handicrafts. It is often found alongside other textile handicrafts, such as applique, embroidery and tie and dye. An early form of mirror work was introduced to India during the reign of the Mughal Empire. Indian artisans quickly excelled at the craft, and over time, motifs evolved to reflect the indigenous cultures of India. Mirror work as we know it today originated from 17th century India. As with many of India’s intricate crafts, the techniques in mirror work are passed down from one generation to another.
The captivating colours and details of mirror work
Small pieces of mirrors of various shapes and sizes, including circular, square, triangular and polygonal, are meticulously and decoratively stitched into place on the base fabric. In earlier times, mica, a type of sheet silicate mineral, was used in mirror work instead of mirrors.
There are three common types of embellishments used in mirror work:
a) Hand blown glass shisha. This type of mirror work makes use of the traditional technique of using mica rather than mirrors. Just like small pieces of mirrors, the mica is available in different shapes and sizes, creating mirror work’s dazzling embellishments.
b) Machine cut glass shisha. This is a contemporary technique of mirror work that is mostly used in the mass-production of mirror work embroidery. Mirror worked items that make use of this modern-day technique are distinguishable by the silvered backing, a result of the chemical process of coating glass with reflective substances.
c) Shisha embroidery. This traditional type of mirror work incorporates the use of not only small pieces of mirrors, but also other embellishments such as sequins. Intricate motifs created by needlework may also appear in shisha embroidery.
Shisha mirror work embroidery alongside applique and needlework embroidery
Regardless of the type of embellishments used, the creativity and characteristics of mirror work, otherwise known as shisha, lie in the framework of decorative and colourful stitches that hold the embellishments in place. The colour of the base fabric is usually dark, compared to the lustrous shine of the embellishments.
The state of Gujarat has always been the epitome of Indian crafts and techniques, and it is unsurprising that the most renowned mirror work hails from Gujarat. An unknown writer of the late 16th century writes of Gujarati mirror work, “For the peasant women of Gujarat, a needle is her pen with which she gives expression to her creativity and reiterates her relationship with religion and nature.” Mirror work was also patronised in Rajasthan, Haryana and Odisha (Orissa), and are also today’s hubs for mirror work.
L: Traditional Gujarati mirror work
R: Traditional Rajasthani mirror work
L: Mirror work from Haryana
R: Traditional Odishan (Orissan) mirror work alongside Pipli applique
Mirror work embroidery, or shisha appears in an array of products, including garments, bags, wall hangings, bed linen and home furnishing. These products continue to be highly sought-after both in and out of India.
Mirror work embroidery on a bag
Images: Maps of India, My Learning, Utsavpedia, Rajasthan Crafts, Komal Gupta, Samantha Davis