Glass Art from India

Although the process of mirror-making in India has not changed over time, the use of mirrors in textiles and as decorations in homes is petering out. Victoria Z. Rivers however, discovers a small village in Gujarat where mirror-makers use traditional methods to produce mirrored spheres which are later used by the tribal communities to embellish their homes and textiles.

Tiny shards of shattered mirror and glass sparkle on the ground like diamonds in the dust, gleaming on the road and the path leading up to the Mohamed Siddik Glassworks. Clearly, this factory in north-central Gujarat, has been here a very long time, as some children scamper away, oblivious to the soft, deep crunching slag beneath their feet. Inside, a master craftsman thrusts a red, hot, wobbling glass form back into the furnace for its last reheating. Like his male ancestors who worked at the factory before him, he has turned out another mirrored sphere, which will be broken, trimmed and sold in bazaars for mirror embroidery or abhala bharat.

This glassworks, and another owned by the same family, have been in almost constant operation for centuries in the small town of Kapadvanj. This was so long ago, no one remembers that the shishger (mirror-maker) family settled here to make glass, because the two rivers nearby provided them with free raw material. The river sand, called ush, which was rich with soda ash, was gathered from the river banks after seasonal rains and when melted, the ush produced glass.

While the family now uses recycled glass instead of river sand, the process of manufacturing glass remains the same. A young craftsman gathers a glob of glass from a large tank and blows the first bubble, while an assistant tends the covers to two glory holes. The bubbled gather is quickly passed on to the master craftsman who then blows an 18-20 inch diameter sphere out of the molten glass. This sphere is then transferred onto a second rod, leaving a hole in the side from the original punty. In a long-handled crucible, another assistant melts a mixture of 5 percent zinc and tin and 95 percent lead, which is slowly poured into the sphere. While the blower rotates the sphere, a continuous spiral ribbon of metal ‘silvers’ the inside of the glass. The silvered ball is released from its punty and set aside to cool, and, within four minutes another mirrored sphere has been created. Nearby, a worker, using some hot pads, takes the slightly cooled spheres and breaks them into large chunks, sorting them by size and quality. These pieces are then packed into boxes and sent to the town of Limbdi, about 50 kilometres away.

In Limbdi, there are about five or six merchants dealing with the cutting, trimming and distribution of mirror pieces for embroidery. There are two stages in trimming the mirrors. In the first, the large chunks of mirror are broken down into smaller pieces. A hard agate known as khambat, mounted onto a ball of lac resin, is used to scour the reverse side of the mirror chunks. Strips, varying in size from about one to one-and-a-half inches wide, are snapped off and further cut into squares. These squares are boxed and weighed, then sent to hundreds of women in the town who execute the second stage of trimming.

The women work quite rapidly, using scissors with a U-shaped pin to round off the corners of each square piece of mirror. They work by feel, rotating the discs with their fingertips as they cut and sort the rounded mirrors by size. In order to prevent glass splinters from flying, the blades of the scissors are dampened with spit. No one seems to be concerned about the possibility of lead poisoning. All the material, including the trimmed fragments, is swept and taken back to the merchants who pay the women by the weight of mirrors they trimmed. In two hours, a woman can trim about one kilogram of mirror squares, and for this labour-she receives about four rupees. The merchants then sort out and package the mirror discs and send them to be sold in the bazaars of India.

Over time, very little if anything has changed in the process by which mirrors have been made and trimmed, even as their use is diminishing rapidly. At one time, mirrors were incorporated in the richly embroidered clothes, used to adorn varieties of household and dowry textiles, or embedded in the walls and furniture inside some indigenous desert architecture, or used to create fantasy mirrored rooms in Mughal palaces from the seventeenth right through the nineteenth century. Whether in clothing or in interiors, the bubbled, irregular, slightly-convex surfaces created by these handblown spherical mirrors enhanced the play of sun and candlelight and made energetic, magical, reflective surfaces which delighted the senses.

Besides being beautiful, mirrors have served as symbols of psychic protection for ancient peoples. Early polished metal mirrors were placed in Chinese and nomadic Scythian burials, perhaps to replicate one’s body or to keep one’s soul from being lost in the unknown afterlife. Throughout Asia there exists the concept of using mirrors and other brilliant, shining objects to divert the evil eye. In desert communities, where mirror embroidery is prevalent, access to water is primary for survival. A mirage looks like water as reality dissolves into illusion raising the hope that water is nearby. Mirrors reflect light like the sun’s rays glinting on a body of water, and a body of water was mankind’s first mirror. Perhaps the mirror alludes to water with all its literal and metaphorical meanings, and since a mirror returns and magnifies light, hopefulness and vitality can also be expressed through its use. Regardless of the intent, the idea of using mirrors in embroidery is deeply embedded in the regional psyche of desert dwellers, extending from Afghanistan through Pakistan, across northwest India and down into the Deccan Plateau.

Throughout this desert belt are numerous forms of traditional abhala bharatdesigns, with many regional stylistic differences some extremely distinct and others less varied. The Banjaras and other nomadic-subgroups, such as the Lambadis of Andhra Pradesh, are known for their use of large circular mirror pieces in which one can easily see the convex shapes, pits, bubbles, and other irregularities common to handblown mirrors. The bold mirrors are incorporated into colourful, grid-like configurations using applique and stitching, creating a dashing, festive appearance.

Large pieces of mirror arc also used in parts of Rajasthan, where women embroider red and blue striped skirts worn to mark their tribal identity. The lower border of the skirt flashes with mirror medallions placed as focal points to isolated vignettes of stitched geometric configurations and animal imagery. Some groups from other areas use the mirrors as accents to complex surfaces worked in geometric patterns of counted stitches, some of which cover the entire cloth.

In Kutch, a remote and once isolated area of western Gujarat, there are numerous cultural groups, each with their own distinctive styles of mirror embroidery. Among the Gracia Jat community of Kutch, women embroider geometric counted patterns over minute mirror pieces to form decorative bodices on churis, loose fitting dresses. The mirrors are so subtle, surrounded in their thick nests of red, blue, white and green stitching, that they only glint and catch light as the wearer moves. Other groups from the Banni district of north-central Kutch are fond of creating an equally obsessively covered surface with multi-coloured counted stitches and larger mirror pieces.

Geometric patterns without imagery may often be the work of Muslim women, while a large vocabulary of recognisable images like parrots, elephants, temples, the sun, deities and floral shapes can be seen in mirror embroidered works among the Hindus and other religious groups. However, it is difficult to make hard and fast distinctions, since groups may be inspired by their neighbours and borrow patterns from them, as well as reflect preferences for abstracted or non-representational decoration. Three Rabari groups in Kutch, for example, prefer representational imagery, and their work is among the most robust of India’s few continuing traditions of abhala bharat. An excellent, but sadly, out-of-print, pioneering study by Vickie G Elson, called Dowries from Kutch : A Women’s Folk Art Tradition in India, identifies some of these regional styles.

Many examples of distinctive regional mirror embroidery have degenerated and mutated, and there are several explanations for this occurrence. The women, in some areas of Kutch, in co-operative efforts to sell their handicrafts, have borrowed styles from other regions to create generic-looking embroideries. Often, the motivation to turn out embroideries for money rather than for their family and personal use has led to poor, hurried craftsmanship. Stores like Gujari also present a dilemma. Although, through training craftworkers to execute Gujari-designed goods, employment opportunities are given a boost, but usually their traditional forms, their expressions and motivations for making these often unnatural objects are corrupted. Owing to the tremendous on-going social transition in Kutch, the many once self-contained communities, making goods for their own use, are now turning out handicrafts for sale to strangers especially the increasing tourist trade making its way into the region.

The Rabari, primarily camel and goat herders, with some practising agriculture, have been able to maintain their dynamic mirror embroidery traditions by continuing to create beautiful pieces for their loved ones, as well as by making high quality work which they distinguish as labour for money. Their design aesthetic reflects a traditional society which at one time created everything in its environment by hand. Therefore, an integrated sense of compositional organisation and meaningful motifs could be seen in designed objects all around them, whether it was an embroidered blouse or the decorated interiors of a house. Motifs such as flowers, trees, birds, women, temples and geometric designs often combined with mirrors, have been used throughout their material culture.

The Rabaris’ traditional circular houses called bhungas, made of dung and clay with thatched roofs, are gradually being replaced by rectangular houses. But, in many of these newer houses or chowki, as with the circular bhungas, the women still construct and decorate the surfaces of the walls and clay storage bins, while the men make the thatch. This mud work, called sajani or samana, is constructed with locally dug mud mixed with donkey dung, and is punctuated by tiladi or embedded mirrors, which enhance the richly embossed, raised decorative patterns. The walls and various built-in storage units in Rabari homes are embellished with the same design elements and decorative motifs as those which occur in Rabari mirror embroidered clothing and household textiles. Each piece of decorated, whitewashed clay furniture serves a specific function – the chausar or kothalo For holding grain; the sanjero for storing precious objects; and the manji, a raised visual focal point upon which stacks of bedding or durkees, and kothries or kolhalos, embroidered storage bags, are placed. In some Rabari homes, the sanjero takes on the symbolic protective form of a temple with Lord Krishna at the top, identified by a triangular form topped with a symbolic head and face.

Historically, it is difficult to know who first used mirrors in either interiors or in embroidery. Indigenous peoples may have been fascinated by the brilliant, decorative qualities of natural, found objects such as small pieces of mica or hard, iridescent elytra from wood-boring beetles, and used them to embellish their environment and clothing many years ago. The protective qualities of shining objects to ward off the evil eye is an ancient concept, and these bright objects may have fulfilled that protective function. In architecture, light-reflective glass and metallic mosaic were refined by the Byzantines and spread throughout the Byzantine empire, becoming popular for decoration as far as the Middle East and Persia. Aleppo, in Syria, became a famous centre for the manufacture of glass mirrors, and there is evidence that early Mughal architecture in India employed mirrors manufactured there.

Mirror embellishment in Mughal palaces was unknown until Shah Jahan’s reign (1628-1658). He constructed the Diwan-i-Khas, and decorated it with mirrors made in Aleppo. The mirrors were hung on walls opposite the river and gardens, thereby reflecting the pleasant natural environment back into the interior. Shah Jahan is also credited with having constructed the first mirrored rooms or shishmahals. These fantasy environments successfully controlled the temperature and light, so that the thickly constructed walls embedded with elegant mirror inlays gleamed from artificial light sources, and reflected in fountains and streams of water diverted through their interiors. They were truly pleasure palaces in which the senses were quietly inspired in a realm of cool tranquility and beauty.

Mughal shishmahals are typified by their gracefully-shaped mirrors inlaid in white relief and incised stucco work. The convex surfaces of these inlaid mirror pieces, created in the same fashion as the mirrored spheres still being produced at Kapadvanj, provide lively curved and uneven surfaces which effectively capture and reflect a dazzling shine. Their otherworldly effects can still be seen inside forts at Agra. Lahore, Delhi and Amber near Jaipur. Perhaps, Rabari bhungas, with their inlaid tiladi and white-coated interiors, are an example of the ‘homemade palace’, inspired long ago by tales and sightings of these mirrored fantasies.

Human attraction towards reflection and shine is a universal quality loved by kings and shepherds alike. Among almost every culture and civilisation, mirrors have been associated with the world of beauty, magic and illusion.

Whether in clothing or architectural embellishment, mirrors delight and dazzle us, and in India there are those who see in them a mystical and mythical reflection of past and present reality. This love will hopefully, keep the towns of Kapadvanj and Limbdi busy with their famous mirror-making occupations.
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Article and photographs reprinted from “The India Magazine” – volume 13, May 1993 written by Mr. Victoria Z. Rivers.
Textile artist Victoria Z. Rivers is the author of “The Shining Cloth: Dress and Adornment That Glitter“.