It mirrors their hard work

Aranmula kannadis are popular among tourists

Barely hours after daybreak, as bustle builds on streets around the Partha­sa­rathy Temple in Aranmula, a group of tourists – armed with a generous supply of bottled water and Googled-up informa­tion on the town – looks around for best price deals on Aranmula’s celebrated metal mirrors.

 The Aranmula kannadi (mirror made from a copper-tin alloy) is a big draw for tourists coming into this little town in the southern Kerala district of Pathanamthitta. 

Some of the tourists bargain for lower rates because they intend to purchase the mirrors in bulk – “What’s the final price?” one of them asks in a tone of resignation. For the small group of artisan families in Aranmula that manufacture the mirrors based on knowledge carried over through generations, it’s a regular business day. But beyond the everyday bargains that define their trade, the families are also holding on to a priceless tradition that has survived at least three centuries.

Researchers have made references to production of Aranmula mirrors as early as in the first half of the 18th century. The mirrors come with fascinating legends, one of them tracing the kannadi’s origin to a group of Tamil artisans employed at the Partha­sarathy Temple who first spotted reflective attributes of the alloy. The Aranmula mirror has since been widely celebrated in its cultural context and over the past couple of decades, also emerged as a must-have item in shopping lists. 

On the Aranmula mirror, the object and its reflection come unseparated unlike in regular mirrors where they are parted by a gap. The right mix that ultimately transforms the alloy into the mirror is still closely guarded within the families. While holding on to the tradition, the present generation of artisans is also battling new market trends and invasion of businessmen without familial ties to the product. The artisans have formed a group – the Vishwabrahmana Metal Mirror Nirman Society – in an effort to ensure protection of the product that comes with a Geographical Indication (GI) certification. They, however, have their task cut out.

K A Selvaraj Achari is part of a family that has been manufacturing the mirrors for three generations. As a child, he had seen his father at work with the mirrors though the latter preferred calling work a gift, a tradition the family was chosen to carry forward. For Selvaraj, taking over from his father was natural progression. It’s a profession that demands years of practice and persistence that at times borders on the spiritual. “Apart from work on the frames, the mirror is a product of manual labour. Right from casting to finishing, it requires intensive labour. It’s hard to find trained workers these days and material costs have increased a lot, but we are hanging on because this is what we’ve been picked to do,” says Achari. 
His company – Parthasarathy Handicrafts Centre – supplies the mirrors in bulk to government and private organisations where the kannadis are a favourite gifting option during conferences and retirement events. There are tourists who purchase these mirrors as takeaways. “Some of them rush in and pick the least-priced mirrors and are not particularly interested in the manufacturing process or the history but we can’t afford to take things easy. This is not just business,” says Achari.

The manufacturing process is marked with patie­nce and precision that come with years of experience. The alloy is heated in a clay mould till it melts. Left to cool for a couple of days, the mirror plate is then separated from the clay flakes before it goes through an extensive, manual finishing stage. The mirrors come in various sizes starting from the one-inch, hand-held vaalkannaadi. The prices start at around Rs 1,000 and run up to lakhs of rupees based on the size and frame of the mirror; conches, peacocks, banyan leaves and other motifs form the base for frame designs. 

The artisans have moved with times and adopted aggressive marketing techniques even as competition builds around the south entrance of the Partha­sarathy Temple, a hub of mirror traders in the town. Some of them have websites and Facebook pages through which orders are placed. The sales peak during the Sabarimala season when a large number of pilgrims visit the Parthasarathy Temple en route to the hill shrine. There are new players in the market; some of them are from out of town – and the community – who have managed to lure in trained workers with more money. The town has close to 20 units run by about five families. 

Will holding the product and its process guarded within a select group of families help carrying the tradition forward? Most of the artisans don’t respond to the question. But they feel there are signs of things to come. Proprietor of a new mirror unit is learnt to have told a traditional mirror-maker: “Let others make some money too.” 

T N Sivankutty, who runs Aiswarya Handicrafts Mirror Centre, is a member of one of the traditional mirror-making families. He was a welder in Kuwait before he “strayed” into the trade in the early 1990s. “More youngsters are learning the craft but it becomes a problem when businessmen outside of the community who are here only to make a quick buck employ these men by offering double the standard salaries,” says Sivankutty. 

Many artisans say they are struggling to meet rising demand for the mirrors and are hit by labour issues. Sivankutty gushes on a new online order when his young son Aravind intervenes and says competition could eventually take the “honour” off the business. As trade opens up to new markets, the mirror-making families of Aranmula present a picture of optimism laced with caution against market forces that could transform a centuries-old tradition.

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