Through the looking glass

On the morning of April 15, on Vishu, many Malayalis will begin their day with a glimpse of their own reflection in an Aranmula kannadi. The handmade mirror is an indispensable part of the kanni or sighting: a picking of fresh produce, a sprig of yellow flowers, a piece of gold jewellery, a coin and a new traditional Kerala sari, signifying prosperity for the rest of the year. The members of the family are led with their eyes closed to where the kanni has been arranged, so it is what they lay their eyes on first.

A cultural artefact

In an airy second-floor foundry at Aranmula, a town famous for the ancient Sree Parthasarathy Temple, K A Selvaraj Achari, his older brother K A Gopalakrishnan Achari, and their team are busy readying batches of the Aranmula kannadi to fulfil delivery commitments in time for Vishu. The delicate artefacts will make their way to government-run handicraft stores in the state, apart from Delhi and Mumbai.

The Aranmula kannadi has consistently posed a bevy of challenges to its craftsmen over the years despite attempts to let the craft gain momentum on the strength of its own legacy. That is, until now. Recently, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan launched a project named ‘Ente Keralam, Ente Aranmula Kannadi’ (My Kerala, My Aranmula Kannadi) to explore promotional opportunities beyond India, as well as curb the spread of duplicates.

Owners of Parthasarathy Handicrafts Centre in Aranmula, he and Gopalakrishnan are the present-generation heirs of a tradition that was revived by their grandfather K Krishnan Achari when Kerala was still ruled by the erstwhile royal family of Travancore. “The king needed large numbers of the mirror so a craftsman from Aranmula was called for. My grandfather learned the art after being summoned by the king,” Selvaraj, 44, explains. In 1962, The Aranmula Mirror Manufacturing Study Centre was formed with Krishnan Achari and his son Arjunan Achari appointed as mentors, but it failed to thrive.

Aranmula throngs with tourists on the day after Onam for its Uthrittathi Vallamkali or snake boat race, one of the oldest in Kerala, held as an offering to Lord Krishna of Sree Parthasarathy Temple. Efforts are on to win UNESCO’s ‘heritage village’ status for the town. The Aranmula kannadi is a relevant part of this heritage. But till it translates into better sales, those like Sindhu S, one of the only two women artisans, can only remain hopeful. She remembers a childhood where her father K N Gopalakrishnan strived to introduce the mirror to the outside world. He set up a store, Viswasarathy Handicrafts Centre, en route the temple in the early 80s. “He was a medical representative but he was also worried about keeping the tradition alive and started taking samples to exhibitions. The media also helped. Soon, we began to get inquiries from as far as Delhi,” she says.

Sindhu, the oldest of three daughters, took on the mantle after her father died. The 44-year-old is no stranger to the process but heading the family unit entails immense responsibility. “Now, we get orders for marriages, housewarming events, and courier the mirrors. There wasn’t much demand in our forefathers’ times. Our family got by with other metal works like vessels and lamps.” The ratio of copper-tin alloy used to make the mirror remains a closely guarded secret among the artisan families in Aranmula. Sindhu recalls her father telling her the proportion from his deathbed — and no, she did not take notes.

The craftsmen who make the mirrors belong to the Vishwakarma community in Kerala, known for their mastery as carpenters, architects, goldsmiths, bronze and coppersmiths, and locksmiths. Work is akin to worship and begins with a lamp being lit before the Hindu deity Vishwakarma, known as the divine architect, every day.

A quick search online shows different versions of how the Aranmula kannadi came to be. Sindhu tells me the story she grew up listening to: at the behest of the king of the region, a group of artisan families moved from Sanakarankovil to Aranmula to take on work at the Parthasarathy Temple. The king provided them with every material comfort and the craftsmen began to take it easy. Displeased, the king asked them to leave. The thought of returning to their former way of life was unthinkable for the craftsmen. One night, a widow called Parvathy Amma had a dream in which the Lord revealed a certain alloy that produced an amazing reflection. Next day, Parvathy Amma gathered the craftsmen to share the metallurgical process with them. Joyous at the result, they made a crown using the alloy and presented it to the king who, in turn, asked that they stay on in Aranmula.

The community began to face competition from those workers who broke away from the units in the hope of striking gold on their own. The influx of migrant workers into the state meant more hands in foundries to take on bulk orders and manufacture duplicate mirrors.

“Without knowing the correct ratio for the alloy, the mirrors will always be duplicates, but they don’t care as there are plenty of buyers who remain ignorant and are only keen on steep discounts. With the Geographical Indication tag, the mirrors should be made only in Aranmula, but the duplicate ones have their sources outside the town,” she adds.

The Vishwabrahmana Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Society was formed in 2005 to earn the GI tag for the mirror as a patented product of Indian origin. It recognised 18 units, including that of Selvaraj and Sindhu’s families, as those that can make the mirrors. Holograms are given to the pieces made by these units as a sign of authenticity after inspection by members of the society. “Customers are slowly becoming aware. They now check to see the hologram and ask if it was made by a member of the society,” says K P Ashokan, president of the society. Vismaya Darshini, the handicrafts centre, started with its first store in Guruvayoor. When founder K G Vinod sourced the mirrors, he found himself drawn to the cause of the community. “The Aranmula kannadi has, for the last 500 years, been kept stored in boxes. We kept them in display counters and people took notice. With the government’s approval, it has been decided to replicate this model at airports, five-star hotels and malls, so that all the 18 units of the society find visibility for their works. It will give them an equal opportunity to raise their quality of life too.” 

Delving into the process

Selvaraj explains the casting process. The field provides the clay for a mixture, used for the casing and the mould, along with powdered old terracotta tiles and bits of gunny sacks. The insides of the case are rubbed down to get a smooth base. A molten copper-tin alloy is allowed to cool and solidify. Pieces of the solidified alloy are stuck to the insides on four corners of the sphere halves in the standard thickness required for the mirrors. This case is then covered with more of the muddy mixture to resemble a hot water bag with a small hole that is sealed off with wax while the mould is closed at the top with a cap.

Upturned batches of the moulds are then stacked vertically in a rectangle furnace. It will have been preheated with a bedding of coal. Once the moulds are in, coconut husk is used to cover them and fill the gaps in between. Air is blown through the nozzle of a machine that leads to the bottom of the furnace to maintain the temperature. During the two-hour wait, smoke billows from the furnace, enveloping the terrace, as other parts of the mirror are in various stages of production on the floor below. Three men polish brass frames at one end while a few others tap patterns into the edges. Over the years, the Aranmula kannadi has come to occupy frames inspired by the peacock, sun, conch, and more, depending on the creativity of the craftsmen, but the casting process has remained the same.

Finally, the moulds are lifted out of the furnace with the caps facing upwards and kept on a surface of sand to cool. The molten alloy would have spread through the vacuum by then, and with the wax seal melting, any excess molten alloy is collected in the cap. When the tops are knocked off, the molten alloy sits in the neck, still glowing a fiery orange. They are set to cool within the moulds over the next two to three days after which, with a few taps, the casing falls apart.

The required size of the sheet is filed and transferred onto wooden disks where they are held in place with a waxy substance. At this point, the sheets, not mirrors yet, are a sooty grey, like an experiment gone bad in a chemistry laboratory. Water paper is used to rub the surface and remove any marks. This time-consuming process is followed by more tedious rounds of polishing on strips of velvet or cotton fabric with oil. 

The mirrors are then placed in the frames with a grainy binding mixture at the base. After being held over the low flame of a stove for a few seconds, a copper ring is tapped into the inner edge of the frame. “It used to be a coating of wax with a swipe of red oxide before. But it melts in the humidity and stains the glass. The ring solves that problem,” Selvaraj says. While copper is available in Kerala, he procures the tin from Mumbai at Rs 1,900 a kilo. “Adulterated tin is sold here at Rs 60 a kilo and used by those who make duplicates.”

A mirror that is two-and-a-half inches in diameter can cost anywhere from Rs 1,500, including the frame. Sindhu displays an eight-inch mirror set within a frame of serpent hoods, called a nagapatti, carved from a single piece of brass. Prices for such mirrors can go up to Rs 50,000. “I don’t know if kids of the current generation will have the patience for what we do,” she adds.

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