A large cloud of dust kicked up by a herd of sheep is headed in your direction. You shade your eyes against the glare of the desert sun and peer through the haze, trying to identify the resplendent figures in the rear. They are clad in brilliant colors, accented with dazzling flashes of light. As they approach, your suspicions are confirmed: you are in the presence of a Rabari family.
The nomadic Rabari roam the northwestern states of India, Gujarat and Rajasthan, in search of water and fodder for their herds of sheep, goats, cattle, and camels.
The adults in this group are all wearing traditional dress, the turbaned men in white and the women in bright colors. Dense embroidery embellishes the women’s shawls and blouses. Pieces of glittering mirror glass form mosaics within the bold designs.
Shisha is the Hindu word for mirror glass; the Muslims call it abla. Shisha embroidery, or mirrorwork, is a form of embroidery that incorporates small pieces of mirror glass.
The desert tribes, both Muslim and Hindu, believe that the mirrors, representing the reflection of light on water, bring luck, prosperity, and fertility. They incorporate mirrorwork in their embroidery to ward off the evil eye by trapping it, reflecting it, or making it blink. Hence, in traditional pieces, the mirrors provide focal points within the embroidery, often as centers of flowers, and eyes of animals and birds. They also frequently border designs or divide patterns into sections.
Evidence suggests that shisha embroidery originated in the 1600s in the desert areas of the Indian subcontinent. It is a fundamental component of traditional needlework in Gujarat and Rajasthan in northwestern India and Sindh in Pakistan. It is also prevalent in the Deccan Plateau of southern India, in Afghanistan, and in Eastern Sumatra.
The original source of reflective material was flakes of mica (a crystal) from the Sindh desert. European trading ships of the 1600s used shards of mirrored glass as ballast, and with the increase in trade with Europe, mirror glass became readily available and started replacing the mica.
The traditional method of producing mirror glass for embroidery begins with large thin-walled globes of blown glass, silvered on the inside. The globes are shattered into shards, which are cut with scissors into small shapes—roughly square, rectangular, circular, tear-dropped, or triangular.
The production of hand-cut glass is still widespread in northwest India, but mass produced machine-cut mirror glass is fast becoming the material of choice: it is less expensive, and, being thicker, is not as fragile.
Since, unlike sequins, the mirrors have no holes in them, artisans attach them to the densely woven background fabric with stitches that frame and overlap the mirrors to hold the shisha in place, much like a picture frame holds a picture.
The embroidery of each ethnic group in the region is usually clearly distinguishable. The groups who practice shisha embroidery include the Meghwal, the Memon, the Jat, the Rajput, and the Rabari.
The Meghwal, a Hindu caste of leatherworkers, embroider over block printed cotton fabric, often using parts of the block printed designs as outlines for the embroidery. They place circular pieces of mirror glass along selvedges and as integral parts of pictorial motifs.
The Muslim Memon are famous for their fine embroidery in floral designs. The work includes tiny bits of mirror glass, some scattered in the background, others forming centers for the flowers.
Geometric designs characterize the embroidery of the Jat, semi-nomadic camel herders and breeders. They accent the abstract patterns with columns of large circular or pear-shaped shisha.
The needlework of Rajput, formerly of a ruling caste, is dominated by diamond and square blocks of coarse yellow and white interlacing lattice-like patterns, which they alternate with square pieces of mirror glass to form rows of repeats.
Unlike any other ethnic group, the Rabari combine mirror glass of different shapes in their work, fitting the shapes together almost like a tile mosaic, and stitching them in place with vividly colored thread.
The cloud of dust is upon you as the sheep and men amble past, but your red-rimmed eyes are drawn to the women bringing up the rear, riding high on camels. The mirror work on their blouses and shawls, designed to ward off the evil eye, proves its effectiveness by causing you to blink repeatedly as the mosaic of shisha reflects the sunlight.
Embroidered Textiles, by Sheila Paine, Thames & Hudson
Embroidery from India & Pakistan, by Sheila Paine, University of Washington Press
Needlework Through History, by Catherine Amoroso Leslie, Greenwood Press
Through the Eye of a Needle: Stories from an Indian Desert, Maiwa & Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan
World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques, by John Gillow and Bryan Sentence, Thames and Hudson
Deborah Brandon is mathematics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a member of WARP (Weave A Real Peace www.weavearealpeace.org), which is a networking organization that serves as a catalyst for improving the quality of life of textile artisans in communities-in-need. In addition to writing, she is also a textile artist and a dragon boater. For more information about Deborah, please visit www.debbrandon.com