The craft of mirror or glass inlay was first seen adorning the walls of the Mughal and then the Rajput palaces. It has since then moved on to be used in decorating dwellings of merchants and common folk, like in the Shekhavati Haveli's of Marwari merchants and Kutchi mud houses.
This art was derived partly from the 'pietra-dura' technique of Florence. Unlike Florentine pietra-dura (stone inlay), the art of inlay could not be independent of their backgrounds. It was an architectural ornament used to decorate plinths, pillars, arches, brackets etc. The zenith of this craft was during the time of Shahjehan, when it was extensively used in the Sheesh Mahal in Lahore and in his Jharokha (throne) at the Red Fort in Delhi. Besides beautification, some of the logical usages of this art both on the exterior and interior walls may be visibility and vigilance.
There was so much that the mirror inlay meant. It's transcending power of light that the Persian Sufi poems gush about, which had the Mughal architecture drape itself with mirror glass fragments and fascination with an enrapturing grandeur these little pieces of light exuded, than their glazed ceramic predecessors.
This craft was honed in India during the Mughal era and later was lent to many applications. In the winter palaces of Udaipur, it was used to spread the light and warmth of the candles. Due to these mirrors, one candle could shine as bright as a few thousands of them. It gave the halls a gleaming effect as well as reduced the flatness of the walls. They have been said to transform a hall into a 'glittering jewel box in flickering candle light'.
This craft served as an indicator of the royal presence in specific areas of authority in imperial architecture. In Mughal mausoleums, the complexity and value of the inlay work on and around the tombstones was also used to depict hierarchy.
Coming to the present day context, the mud-finished walls of the village households of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the walls of temples and interiors of many palace hotels are decorated with minute colorful mirror chips creating forms like birds, flowers, leaves, vessels and so on. This also acts as a natural insulation to help cope with the hot weather of Rajasthan. The mirror-work on the exterior walls reflects the heat away, keeping the interiors comparatively cooler.
The craftsmen who are family artisans for generations mainly do the marble inlaid art. The most interesting fact about this art is that even now the artisans use the same kind of tools as used in the 16th and 17th century for this work. Also using the same sort of stones, which are not only genuine but they give real look of the past era. Also it takes more than a day to create a small flower in semi precious stone. The present day craftsman are all believed to be the descendants of those who came from Persia to decorate the Taj Mahal, and who excelled in fine art of setting gems and semiprecious stones in marble.
Myths & Legends
It is said that the catalyst for this craft is the Solomonic throne. Shah Jahan's jharokha was based on the bejeweled throne of King Solomon on which he sat and administered justice. King Solomon made a great throne, which was fashioned off ivory and covered with gold. It was set with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other precious stones that shone with the most brilliant, the most dazzling, the most fascinating hues and colors. It had been adorned with replicas of growling lions and winged birds. These motifs patronized the witnesses and kept them from lying. To the Mughals, King Solomon epitomized great power driven by wisdom and justice. Imagery, symbolic of these, is inlaid in the niche behind Shah Jahan's jharokha in Delhi. The light is a mystical symbol in Islam, the symbol of Divine unity and presence of God. It reminds that only God is real-all other is illusion.
By the 17th century, the art of cutting hard semi-precious stones and inlaying them in softer marble had reached the Mughal Empire. The Mughal emperors, who used to import 'pietra-dura' panels from Florence to embellish structures, employed Florentine craftsmen to pass on the art.
Their beneficiaries, mainly Rajput chieftains, carried forward this art into their palaces. By the 19th century, it had become a mandatory feature in households of nobility. It became an indicator of grandeur and royalty where vast surfaces were covered. Now, many Rajasthani tribes decorate the exteriors of their houses with mirror-work. This craft also appears in many contemporary interiors in re-interpreted patterns.
The history of mirror mosaic work popularly known as 'inlay' in India goes as back as the Sheesh Mahal (palace of mirrors) constructed by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631. Adorned with pietra-dura (stone inlay) and complex mirror-work of the finest quality creating gleaming effect in the royal halls and courtyards, the Mahals of Rajasthan are a reflection of the sumptuous lifestyle of the Rajput royalty in medieval times.
The design in Mughal architecture consists of bold and complex symmetric patterns. These consist of rhythmically repeated abstract patterns and epigraphy from Quran in mirror or glass inlay.
The base is mostly white marble or mud-plaster. The designs are primarily two-dimensional but in special cases, the design is made three- dimensional. Convex or concave mirrors are used in this regard to give it a fuller appearance and an embossed effect. This method is called the Tekri inlay.
The craftsmen also used to create dimension using different shades of the same stone on a motif.
Even greater detail was achieved by carefully choosing pieces of each gemstone with differing tones. This variety of hues enabled the craftsmen to give the impression of shading and depth in each flower. Thoughtfully entangled oral designs create different effects.
Some designs were so complex that a single flower motif could contain more than a hundred individual pieces of coloured glass.Most of the patterns are inspired from nature and delicately depicted birds, flowering plants, and animals. Constellations of glass set on the structures form an abstract nature on them and glimmer in even in the dimmest light of the sun, moon and stars.
Though the marble inlay work of India is similar to that of the pietra-dura of Italy, the former varies by not having a three dimensional structure and are more flat. The pietra-dura had more of European birds inlay work whereas the Mughals had more of Indian kingfisher, myna, and red-breasted parakeet.
The Indian craftsmen were already well versed with inlaying softer coloured stones in marble. The challenge came when hard stones like agate, carnelian, amethyst and other semi-precious stones were to be used in Mughal architecture. The Islamic patterns being symmetrical, a great amount of precision was also required in cutting these stones. The skilled craftsmen soon mastered the technique. This craft caught on in later times too since the intrinsic value of glass and mirrors were low, but elaborate and grand effects could be achieved.
This multifaceted multicolored craft from Rajasthan has attracted the attention of the art lovers across the globe, giving craftsmen like Rajesh Maheshwari an opportunity to display their skills to create awe-inspiring experiences out of an inexpensive raw-material (glass pieces from redundant objects and leftovers from the industry are also used).