The afternoon sun is blazing as Niranjan K B is preparing an alloy of tin and copper at his thatched family workshop in Aranmula village on the banks of river Pampa in Kerala. When the metals begin to melt, he takes a small amount of the alloy from the crucible, places it on a mould, and allows it to solidify. He then breaks the sample using a hammer to inspect the alloy’s quality.
Nirajan is not just another artisan involved in the craft process, which remains a closely-guarded secret of a handful of families in Aranmula and Mallappuzhasseri villages of Pathanamthitta district. He is pursuing MBA from Annamalai University while his younger brother Govardhan K B is a graphic designer and marketer, managing online sales for the family enterprise.
From one generation to another
“Engineers, MBAs, commerce graduates and even post graduates are taking forward the legacy of this craft. While only two families were earlier involved in the making of metal mirrors, eight families are practicing it now,” says Govardhan.
There are 20 workshops spread over the two villages engaged in Aranmula Kannadi, which received the Geographical Indication tag in 2004. The craft and its secrets are passed on from one generation to another and the tech-savvy younger generation has found new frontiers through online sales. Besides catering to a flourishing domestic market, these mirrors are also exported to the US, and almost all European countries.
She took on the mantle from her father M S Janardhanan Achary – a recipient of the National Merit Award for Heritage preservation and State awards from the Handicrafts Development Cooperation as well as Kairali.
Over a decade after Sudhammal set up Sree Parthasarathy Handicrafts and Mirror Center, young women are lining up to learn the craft first patronised by the King of Pandalam centuries back.
P Gopakumar, former secretary of Viswabrahmana Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Society and a master craftsman, says the new generation is keen to grow the globally-renowned craft.
He annually sells 500 to 750 mirrors, which are also exported to the US, UK, Germany and other countries.
Kings, temples and the history of Aranmula Kannadi
It is said that the King of Pandalam brought the ancestors of these Vishwakarma families from Sankaran Koil near Tirunelveli (Tamil Nadu) to Aranmula for helping in the construction of the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
These artisans would also make ornaments and vessels using copper-based alloys. That is when they discovered the reflective property of the copper-tin alloy and made the first Aranmula mirrors. It is believed that the first person who made Aranmula Kannadi was a lady named Parvathy Ammal, who passed on the secret procedure of the art to the later generations.
Unlike the glass mirror where the image falls on the mercury-coated surface inside the glass, the image in Aranmula mirror falls just on top of the metal mirror’s surface. So if a finger is placed on a regular mirror, a small gap is visible between the finger and its image but there is no gap in the case of this metal mirror.
“They are completely handmade, have zero distortion, and reflect the most real you. These mirrors can be passed on from one generation to another by the buyers as well,” Niranjan says.
Aranmula Kannadis come in various sizes, starting from an inch and going up to 20 inches. The oval-shaped handheld mirror called Vaalkannadi is oval in shape and symbolises feminity. These mirrors also adorn the Buckingham Palace and a 45-cm piece made by late craftsman Achary is placed in the British Museum, London.
“It takes about a week to ready a piece,” says Gopakumar.
Also Read: Meet India’s ancient board game hunters
The process of making Aranmula Kannadi
The process begins with melting of the tin and copper alloy in the crucible using a furnace fired with coconut shell and charcoal. Tin is about one-third of the alloy. After the alloy passes the quality test of the hammer method, the rest of the alloy is also solidified and then broken into pieces, which are later re-melted and cast as the mirror, explains Govardhan.
Two clays slabs or disks are made, dried in the sun and baked to make the mould. The side on which the mirror is to be cast is coated with coal or ‘kari’ mixed with water. A gap is maintained between the two disks using small alloy pieces depending on the thickness of the mirror required. A wax piece is placed between the gaps from which the molten metal can enter the mould.
The sides of the disks are sealed using cow dung and clay mixture. Then a second layer of ground tile clay and raw earth clay is applied to the mould, which is allowed to dry for a day.
Once fully dried, the casting process begins. The moulds, filled with metal, are placed inside the furnace. They are covered with a layer of coal followed by a layer of coconut coir on top and heated to about 700-750 degrees Celsius.
Once cooled, the moulds are broken with the help of a hammer and the slabs are separated. The metal cast is dusted and then cut into the desired size (even as small as an inch) using hacksaw blade and ruler. The metal mirror plate is stuck on a wooden polishing plank using a natural adhesive from beeswax.
The mirrors are first polished with coconut oil and other materials using jute cloth; followed by polishing using cotton cloth and then velvet cloth. “Polishing can take 2 to 3 days and is an important part of the process,” says Gopakumar.
Flourishing business in safe hands
The mirror models are either handhelds or the wall hanging type. “The price of the smallest mirror starts at Rs 650 and can be higher depending on the outer design,” he says. The price can run into lakhs also for larger mirrors with intricate outer designs.
Govardhan says his family can make around 100 mirrors per month.
In 2015, the Thikkinampallil Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Family Charitable Trust filed a petition in the GI Registry questioning Vishwabrahmana Society’s legacy over the Aranmula Kannadi. No decision has been taken yet on the application.
Later, in 2018, the floods that hit Kerala damaged workshops as well as tools of artisans. However, nothing has been able to deter the resolve of the next generation of artisans.
Niranjan is planning to set up a new workshop, where he will work on allied metal crafts along with the Kannadi. Govardhan will help him with his online expertise. And women in Gopakumar’s family will one day own units like Sudhammal. The centuries-old metal mirror craft of Aranmula is definitely safe in these young hands.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)