The Sheesh Mahals of Rajasthan

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 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 mud walls these mirrors were usually small and circular in shape and the patterns in white chalk white around them huts very attractive.

This type of work can still be seen in remote villages in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

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. Awed by the ornate palaces in Rajasthan, I have often marveled at the mirror work that one sees covering the walls of palaces. These 'Sheesh Mahal's' are seen at most of the famous palaces and havelis in Rajasthan. Some of the finest examples of this work can 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 in Jodhpur and the Junagarh Fort at Bikaner.

Traditionally, mirror work and 'panni' work – which is the use of coloured foil to fill in or outline thedesigns – 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 theinteriors of fifteenth century forts, palaces and havelis" of 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 at 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, seen and appreciated by-the feudal lords of Rajasthan, who decided to decorate their palaces with a more highly developed and sophisticated version. In this, the Rajas and Maharajas found that walls covered in mirror work, multiplied the images of lamps – making theroom 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 tosee multiple images of his favourite queen. It is said that the use of large mirrors on garments by thenomadic Rabari tribe of Rajasthan, also had its origin in the fact that the male wished to be reflectedin the garments of his beloved!

As expected in specialised creativity, mirror work is a highly intricate process that requires great skillslearnt from a young age. The craftsmen who are involved in this work are usually descendants of families who have been in this trade for generations.

Today there are only about a handful of craftsmen in Rajasthan who have the knowledge of the traditional techniques. It is hoped that in time to come, patrons for this exquisite craft will come forward, to offer opportunities to recreate the magical world of mirrors. For the few existing mirror-workers, their livelihood depends on the urban use of their craft.

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