Like so many others, I have always been intrigued by the ornate palaces in Rajasthan and marveled at the mirror work that often covered their walls. These ‘Sheesh Mahals’ are seen at some of the most famous palaces and havelis in Rajasthan. Some of the finest examples of this work are to be seen on the ceilings, walls and columns of the palace at Samode, the Diwan-e-khas at Amber, the City Palace and Lake Palace at Udaipur, the Mehrangarh Fort at Jodhpur and the Junagarh Fort at Bikaner.

The urge for decoration permeates all facets of life in Rajasthan and Gujarat and it was initially used to decorate homes. In fact, the mirror was first used as an embellishment on the exterior walls-embedded in the mud walls, the mirrors were usually small and of circular shape, and raised patterns were made around them. This type of work can still be seen in remote villages in Gujarat, and it is thought that mirrors were probably introduced into the land by traders, arriving over land and sea, from Europe and Persia.

Mirror-work has traditionally played a very important role in decor of all kinds and Rajasthan and Gujarat, can be credited with introducing the world to innovative methods of using mirrors. The use of mirrors in garments is now universally known, and designers of high fashion garments the world over have been experimenting with mirror work for the past decade. However, the intricate mirror work used in decorating walls, such as the hall of mirrors or Sheesh Mahal at the Amber Fort in Jaipur, is less widely known.

Traditionally, mirror work and panni work— which is the use of coloured foil to fill in or outline the designs—were used together. The foil helps in giving each pattern a clear and well-defined outline, and highlights the visual impact of the overall design. Stained glass windows in primary colours set in geometrical designs, in conjunction with mirror and panni work has been used extensively in the interiors of forts, palaces and havelis of fifteenth century Rajasthan.

The use of myriad mirrors began with the decoration and embellishment of temples. Mirror-workers involved in this craft for 6 generations, say that the purpose of multiple mirrors, was to create endless images of the deities— showing that God was omnipresent. To the commoner, the Maharaja was also considered if not on exactly on the level of God, but certainly as an exalted being whose royal visage deserved to be enhanced!

It is also likely that this folk art, was seen and appreciated by-the feudal lords of Rajasthan, who decided to decorate their palaces with a more highly developed and sophisticated version. In so doing, the Maharajas found that walls covered in mirror work, multiplied the images of lamps—making the room brighter. Vanity also played a large part in this, as the personage of the Maharaja was also multiplied! Hence throne rooms, halls of private and public audience and other special areas, were heavily decorated with mirror work, interspersed with moulded gilding and panni work.

Needless to say, the royal harems were also mirror bedecked, so that the monarch would be able to see multiple images of his favourite queen. It is said that the use of large mirrors on garments by the nomadic Rabari tribe of Rajasthan, also had its origin in the fact, that the male wished to be reflected in the garments of his beloved!

Mirror work is a highly intricate process, and requires great skill learnt from a young age. The craftsmen who are involved in this work are descendants of families who have carried on the trade for generations. Initiation, as in so many of the other crafts of the sub-continent, has to be imparted at a young age—skill growing with years. In addition to skill, a great deal of patience and perseverance is a prerequisite, since a craftsman can only complete a miniscule portion of the work in a day.

Special micro tools are required for mirror work - a karni for applying the paste, a naila for finishing the surface, different types of kalam for scratching the lime paste and cutting the mirrors, and a chimti for gripping the mirror firmly. A special type of glue is also used to attach the mirrors firmly in place.

The mirrors used in this type of work, may be plain or coloured, and traditionally these were made in Faizabad and Ahmedabad. They are usually available in circular shapes of 30cm diameter, and 2-4 mm  thickness - a thicker gauge would make cutting difficult, while a thinner gauge would render them easily breakable. Conclave mirrors were also popular and used during Mughal times, and reflected a larger spectrum of images.

The mirrors are placed on a base of lime plaster, that has been watered for several days, and made rough to prevent cracks. A special finrush known as loi is then applied. This is a paste formed by mixing kali (baked lime) and surkhi (crushed burnt brick) with water. The loi imparts a fine reddish brown look to the surface, which is then ready to receive the relief work.

The design is carved out with a 20-23 cm long kalam, which has a pointed upper tip for carving, and a flat lower tip for scraping off undesired paste. The relief work is then covered in gajmitti after which the finer details are worked out in a paste—a combination of gum, baked clay and water. Finally the mirrors are cut into the desired shape, and their edges softened with another 15 cm. kalam with teeth-like edges. A 10 cm. long chimti then comes into play, and the mirrors are painstakingly placed piece by piece to form the design.

Panni work is done with thin foil, available in many colours. The technique involves outlining the floral designs on a glass surface, cutting it out with scissors, and then rubbing it with a hard stone ( popularly known as hakkik ka pathar) to create a concave surface. It is then placed on the outlined design, and attached with a special paste made out of a combination of baked clay, gum and water. The glass is framed in lime plaster with a slight gap between it and the wall. The overall effect is not only three-dimensional, but also catches the light of the sun or a lamp, and reflects it with total clarity.

The art of mirror and panni work are elaborate and time-consuming, requiring great skill and precision. This combined with the expense involved, has resulted in a loss of patronage. Today there are only about a handful of craftsmen in Rajasthan conversant with this technique, and most of them are over 65 years of age. It is hoped that more patrons for this exquisite craft will come forward, so that the magical world of mirrors, epitomized in the Sheesh Mahal will be created again and yet again.

Mirror work was also used extensively on furniture, by rich land owners and merchants—beds, stools and baby cribs or 'jhulas', all used this comparatively inexpensive style of ornamentation. Furniture created in this style, using mirrorwork with bright colours and leaf gold, in rooms with mirror work on walls and ceilings, created an effect that was dazzling beyond imagination.

For today’s mirror  workers, their livelihood depends on the urban use of their craft. They normally live in groups, and seldom work in isolation. The work being slow and tedious, whole families may work together, so that progress is faster. As in the case of all Indian crafts, the art of mirror-work is handed down from father to son, and training imparted on site.

Shona Adhikari