Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Unusual Occupations - Aranmula Kannadi ( the metal mirror from Aranmula)

Aranmula Kannadi ( The metal mirror from Aranmula)


On the 14th of April, on the day of Vishu, Malayalalis the world over would wake up to Vishukani.

The Vishukani is arranged on the previous night. Usually the eldest female member in the family sleeps in the room in which the Vishukani is prepared. She wakes up early in the morning and lights the lamp. She then closes the eyes of each person in the family and guides each person to the Vishukani.

Among other things that are kept are an Uruli ( a large vessel), Betel leaves, Betel nut, Turmeric, Rice, a container with vermilion, the sacred hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita and a  mirror into whose reflection every member of the family awakens to an auspicious beginning  on the new year’s day.
The mirror kept in the Vishukani is no ordinary mirror.  It is the Mirror made from Aranmula, a small town located on banks of the Pampa river  in the southern part of Kerala. The town revolves around the ancient temple dedicated to lord Parthasarathy. However unlike most temple towns in India, Aranmula’s main attraction is not so much the Lord Parthasarathy temple but the makers of Aranmula metal mirror.    

As we approach the Aranmula Parthasarathy temple, which is not exactly the landmark that we are heading to, are many shops selling the Aranmula metal mirror.   Manikanda Handi craft center is where we are headed to.  It is late morning and even in December the town is sultry and humid.  The small shop is open and there is surprisingly no one at the front desk. We look around to ask for the craftsman that we have come looking for. The shop is bare barring a few metal mirrors on display.

We make enquiries and a young man appears at the shop and lets us know that his  brother had gone out of town and had let him know that we were coming.  We ask him if we could go around and see the workshop. 

Behind the shop is a small alleyway that leads us to a backyard with few papaya trees. A rooster is performing its mating rituals chasing the hen towards one corner while we are lead to small mud layered square room open on all sides with low walls.  Two craftsmen are busy working with clay and are moulding them into flat  pieces.  One of them comes and chats up with us and answers our questions.

He has been working in this workshop for over 16 years now. He and his colleague who is now busy rolling up a tube to be placed between the two clay moulds looks up shyly.  They look like they have gone through this rigmarole many times over. I do not for a moment suspect that.  People who come to buy the Aranmula mirror are usually tourists or families that have settled in far away places.

Possessing an Aranmula mirror is like having a piece of heritage and tradition of their home land. Every once in a while a curious visitor would want to see the workshop and understand why the Aranmula Mirror is so special.

Unlike a normal reflective mirror which is made when a glass is coated with a reflective mercury coating, it is a front surface reflection mirror, so the secondary reflections and abberations typical of a back surface mirrors are not present. The Aranmula mirror is made from an alloy of Copper and Tin . The exact proportions and the method of mixing the two is the trade secret that is known only to a few .  As of date there are only 8 families in Aranmula who originated from a single clan who know the technique.

The Aranmula Mirror making process is protected with a patent and has received a geographical indication (GI)  tag.   It is believed that the secret proportions of the alloy has been a closely guarded secret among the handful of surviving artisans from these families.

Mounds of clay are made into round shapes depending on the size of the mirrors that need to be made. Mud from the local paddy fields is used to make the mould.  In between two such casts a small hole is made from which the pieces of copper and tin are inserted. This is then baked in an open furnace fuelled by wood fire to very high temperatures. This is when the alloy of tin and copper melts in between the mounds into a flat surface. It is then picked up and cooled to room temperature.  The clay moulds that have been subjected to the high temperatures are baked and they now have to be broken down.  The inner piece is now a raw form of what would then get mounted on a metal frame to form the Aranmula Metal mirror. 

This piece of alloy needs to be laboriously polished by rubbing the metal with a soft cloth cover for several days  to bring up the reflective surface of the mirror. It is a highly labour intensive process, which explains why an Aranmula mirror is so special and so expensive.

We are then taken upstairs to the workshop where other craftsmen are carving the design on brass metal mounted stands on which the Aranmula mirror will be mounted. This is the work of an artisan. There are intricate designs that are etched on the brass surface by hand.  Later a polished mirror of the right size would be fixed on the metal frame to complete the mirror.   

The Aranmula mirror comes in various sizes , shapes and designs. 

The most famous among them is the 45 centimeter tall Aranmula metal mirror in the collection at the British museum in London.

While the most ancient and the original one is linked to the Parthasarathy Temple at Aranmula. 

Local legend has it that many generations ago, a few artists came to Aranmula from Sankaran Koil near Tirunelveli. They had migrated at the behest of the King of this region who wanted to build a grand temple that would eventually be known as the Aranmula Parthasarathy temple. While these artisans carried out the tasks for building the temple, they also made ornaments , cooking vessles and bells using copper based alloys mixing them in different proportions with different metals. It was thus, when working with the Bronze alloys that they discovered the reflective property of the copper-tin alloy, which when polished made a perfect reflective mirror.

Thus was born the Aranmula Kannadi”.

A large number of orders are placed when well to do families want to give an Aranmula mirror as a gift to the invitees of a wedding.  The Local state government departments order Aranmula mirrors to give the visiting dignitaries a souvenir from God’s own country.

We spot the photo of Kerala’s matinee hero Mohanlal posing with the proprietor  of Manikanda Handicrafts hung prominently in front wall of the shop. Mohanlal is being gifted an Aranmula Mirror by Rajeev the proprietor of Manikanda Handi craft centre. This is  probably not the first Aranmula mirror that Actor Mohanlal posseses.  However for Rajeev it is a matter of pride to have been able to meet his favorite hero when he had been shooting in nearby Thodupuzha for the movie Drishyam which went on to become a superhit and click a photograph with him .  An Aranmula mirror from his own workshop  was the least he could have gifted him  on the occasion. He recalls the moment of meeting Mohalal with great fondness and talks about him with a twinkle in his eye.  

It is a great conversation drifter and soon we get talking about all other prominent personalities who come down to Aranmula to buy the auspicious mirror.   Rajeev tells us that they have had a really busy run the past couple of months.
B Ravi Pillai the Bahrain based multimillionaire NRI business man from Kollam in Kerala had bulk ordered  thousands of pieces of Aranmula mirror to be given away as return gifts for his  daughter’s wedding in November 2015.  All the families and their workers had worked overtime to ensure the order was delivered on time.  That partially explained why the shop’s display and inventory was bare. Literally every piece of the metal mirror had been sold it would would take a while to replenish the inventory.  
The business was good. Especially with the Patenting came the GI tag, that meant that the manufacture of the metal mirror was restricted to the original artisans from this area.  It signified originality would be retained and that as long as demand existed there would be stability and pride in the making of the Aranmula mirror.       

Rajeev had been a wonderful host and as I am about to take leave I just cannot resist to buy an Aranmula mirror for myself from his shop.  There are precisely three pieces that are left in his inventory and the design that I have liked from the catalogue is out of stock. It would not be fair that I walk into a competitor’s shop ( although they are all from the same family) and buy the design of my liking.
Rajeev promises to courier me the piece as soon as they make one and I could wire the payment via online money transfer just before despatch, he promises.

I reflect for a moment. It has been such a gratifying day, travelling all the way to Aranmula.  Ordering online would just not equal the satisfaction of buying one right now from his shop. So what, if this is not the design that I fancy ?

It is about this present moment on this day. This is a momentous day when I have stumbled upon an ancient craft and tradition that had been carried over for generations.  I am standing in this very soil at Aranmula and I do not want to let the moment pass. 

I pick up the one of the three available pieces at his workshop knowing well that I was taking with me not only a piece of Aranmula mirror but also the labour, the sweat, the art, the intricate craftsmanship and most importantly the prana - life giving energy form of the artisans that I had just met and who were the carriers of the the knowledge and the quality of a great piece of heritage.

In their own small but significant way it is they who are the carriers of a timeless piece of tradition  and the quality of a great piece of heritage.

In that moment as I hold the Aranmula mirror in my hand, I intuitively comprehend the complex social, ecological, cultural and economical factors that go behind the good luck charm, the wealth and the prosperity that the Aranmula mirror promises to bring to the life of its patrons. 

Click here to watch a one minute video on the making of the Aranmula Mirror. 


1 comment:

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