Sculpturing the search within oneself

Mixed medium

My earliest memory of the metal mirror is from when my family conducted a ritual on Vishu day - an auspicious day for farmers and celebrated mid-April. I was around six or seven then,” says artist Balan Nambiar who has exhibited his sculptures in stainless steel and pictures of rituals peculiar to Kerala, in ‘The Mirror Image’ - an ongoing exhibition at Triveni Kala Sangam.

A collection of steel sculptures and photographs, the exhibition displays what the artist saw throughout his childhood in the form of rituals. “All the auspicious objects were arranged by our elders in a prayer room in the house. We were woken up by our parents and taken blindfolded to the prayer room. Then we were made to open our eyes and look at these objects as the first things we saw that day,” he recollects. 

Balan delves into the artistic appeal behind the use of mirrors by man. He takes his inspiration from val-kannatis or metallic mirrors cast in bronze alloys which are considered auspicious and included in worship and other rituals in Kerala. The metal mirror with a handle is called a val-kannati while the metal mirror which has an ornate flame around it and sits on a pedestal is called a kannati-bimbam.

“Many rituals that are performed for female deities incorporate the metal mirror in some way or other. I thus began to realise that kannati-bimbams were kept in the sanctum-sanctorums of mother goddess temples in place of idols (sic). I started noticing metal mirrors everywhere. Only much later did I realise the symbolism associated with it. The devotee is expected to look into his or her reflection and meditate upon it to seek the God within. To me, it was a really unique symbol.” And thus the metal mirror is, “a symbol, (for) searching for oneself.”

“I have spent a lifetime behind each creative work,” says Balan and adds, “In 1999, I was laser-cutting sheets of metal and TIG welding them to create sculptures. I was making a lot of large outdoor sculptures and found that I had lots of material surplus. Given that I had been thinking about metal mirrors as ritual objects for a long time, I thought that the process was a really beautiful fit for the subject matter. And I didn’t want to copy the mirrors I saw in temples or places of worship. I wanted to recreate my own images inspired by original forms.”

His photographs are all the more intriguing. “Since childhood I have been familiar with the ritual performances in my village. Later, during college I used to visit different parts of Kerala and Tulunadu to see the ritual performances without a notebook or camera in hand. Once when I narrated my experience to some writer-friends, they advised me to record my experiences and document them through photographs.

I also realised that some of the ritual art forms might be on the verge of being lost. I felt the urgency for documenting them and thus began taking photographs in the 1970s.” The rest, as they say, is history!

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