The art and alchemy of the magic mirror from Kerala
Charmy Harikrishnan | 23 Dec, 2015
This is the most unlikely place for magic that you will ever see. I squeeze past sacks spilling over with charcoal in a narrow corridor and climb three flights of stairs to a grubby rooftop washed with morning light. A pair of frayed jeans and a few worn shirts hang from a rope. There is a huge pile of broken clay tiles in a corner. A small mound of mud sits on one end. A black scorpion skitters into a shadow. A few old grinding stones seem to stretch on their backs. There is a furnace waiting to be lit. Grey asbestos sheets propped on poles shield this area from wind and rain. This is a drab smithy for a mysterious alchemy. It is here, on this bare floor, that 42-year-old Selvaraj AK, wearing a shirt in the exact shade of copper, and a few men turn metal into mirror. They miraculously convert opaque belts of copper and silvery nuggets of tin into shimmering discs where you glimpse yourself with a clarity and depth that you don’t find in your everyday glass mirrors. This is where the unusual Aranmula metal mirror is fashioned by hand every day.
The Aranmula mirror is a disc that varies usually from two inches to six inches in diameter and sometimes more, up to 12 and even 18 inches. It is held in a brass frame that is in the shape of a tapering peepal leaf or a sinuous swan or the orb of a sun. It is the ultimate souvenir: it fuses art and science, culture and technology. Its backstory is tantalising. There is the enigmatic folklore of its origin in the 18th century and a secret formula of metallurgy passed down generations. It is local and handmade in an age that prizes both. There can be, come to think of it, nothing simpler than a handheld mirror and yet there can be few things more complex than the one that is smelted and moulded and burnished in any of only 19 units in the villages of Aranmula and Mallapuzhacherry in Pathanamthitta, about 100 km from Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala.
When Narendra Modi came to the state, on his first visit as Prime Minister, in December, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy gave him an Aranmula mirror in a conch frame. When Modi went to Britain in November, he gifted First Lady Samantha Cameron an Aranmula mirror along with Pashmina stoles. When Finance Minister Arun Jaitley came to Thiruvananthapuram in September, he was seen admiring one. When cricketer Sachin Tendulkar came over for the Kerala Blasters FC, he was presented with one. “The Aranmula mirror is like the state souvenir,” says Selvaraj. It has become so ubiquitous that you could easily forget the magic that forges it with bare essentials, or miss the fact that just a handful of people in and around Aranmula know how to make it.
A two-storey building in Aranmula junction functions three ways. It is Selvaraj’s workshop where he labours away for about nine hours a day with his elder brother Gopalakrishnan and six other craftsmen. It serves as their shop, Parthasarathy Handicrafts Centre, where the end product—the mirror—is sold. A few rooms therein are his home, where he lives with his wife Sandhya and their two kids.
A huge board placed outside warns customers against fake Aranmula mirrors. The Vishwa Brahmana Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Society got a Geographical Indication certificate in 2005. This means that only mirrors made by its 19 members are considered authentic. In 2005, there were just seven units making these mirrors. The Society has now expanded, allowing experienced apprentices to learn the secret formula and make the mirror. Selvaraj is the president of this Society, the inheritor of a legacy handed down by his father and grandfather.
Selvaraj is about 5 ft 4 in tall. His face, in spite of the beard, is lean. He speaks softly and only when necessary, but his fingers, with a navaratna ring adorning a finger of his right hand, are nimble. He begins the magic show.
First he unfurls a thick belt of gleaming copper: it stretches like a ribbon of sunset in the room. He places it against a huge head of a hammer and gently taps it with the sharp edge of a chisel. He then places the copper band under his big toe and bends it to break it—it goes on, the sound of metal on metal, until he has enough strips. He then gets hold of hoary chunks of tin. He weighs them behind closed doors: the proportion is a carefully guarded secret and is at the heart of the alloy.
Scientists have been trying to decipher the composition of the Aranmula mirror for a long time. Sharada Srinivasan, who is on the advisory board of the Institute for Archaeo- Metallurgical Studies, London, and a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, has been researching it ever since she came to Aranmula in 1990. She explains its uniqueness: “The Aranmula mirror has a very high and excellent reflectance [effectiveness in reflecting radiant energy] across the spectrum, brilliantly reflecting colours. This is because of the nature of the metal alloy used to make the mirror. My research findings show that the mirror is uniquely made of bronze of a high tin content—around 32-33 per cent.” This is close to what is called the delta phase of bronze which has 32.6 per cent tin. “The delta phase of bronze is ideal for making a mirror because it is silvery-white with very high reflectance. It is harder than steel and hence it can take a very high degree of polishing to get the best possible mirror surface. Silver too has a high reflectance, but it is very soft and bends and scratches easily, resulting in distorted images. Due to its hardness, delta bronze will not distort images once it is polished.”
Selvaraj has known this trick for the past 24 years. He was a 14-year-old boy, just out of school, when he began helping his father, VK Arjunan Achari. He hung around the workshop doing minor jobs: preparing the furnace, adding coal and coconut husk to the fire, breaking the alloy into bits. He shows old newspapers with photographs of his father: a gaunt man with thick black spectacles polishing his metal mirrors. “When I was 18, my father fell sick. One day, he asked me to measure the metals for smelting,” recalls Selvaraj of the day he learnt the secret ratio of copper to tin. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about that moment, he would say. There was nothing ordinary about it, either.
The process is elemental: earth, water, fire and air. Selvaraj first mixes earth and water to make clay. He gets the earth from a nearby hillock across the paddy fields, painstakingly flaking it off and then carrying it in gunny sacks to the workshop. “We have always used this local mud,” he says. He mixes it with broken bits of tiles and water to make rectangular slabs which are then fired in kilns. When two of these slabs are bound together, with a 3-mm gap in between, they act as the mould into which the lava-like alloy will be poured and cooled. But let us not jump ahead. First Selvaraj uses this clay and bricks to create a hearth. An oval-shaped smelting pot made of cast-iron is lowered into it. Chunks of burning coal surround the cauldron, and a fire begins to burn bright, thanks to Gopalakrishnan operating a manual blower without a pause. About 25 minutes later, Selvaraj drops the copper bands into the blazing pot. Another 25 minutes, and the copper strands begin to turn golden, then they glower and rage red-hot. Then chunks of tin are thrown into the smouldering vessel. The metals smelt to form a bubbling liquid fire.
No one keeps time about how long the metals should be heated. No one measures with any instrument what the temperature should be or when this magma-like alloy should be taken off the fire. Selvaraj relies on his trained eye and unerring instinct. He dips a long ladle into the cauldron and pours a bit of the fiery liquid on to a brick and watches it hiss and spread on the surface to estimate the viscosity. When the thickness seems just right, he removes the vessel with a pair of tongs and pours the boiling alloy into a pan resting on a hollow in the mud. When the alloy cools, it is the colour of dull silver. Selvaraj sprinkles a little water on it: a fault line forms and the alloy breaks in an instant, revealing a white silvery metal within. The mirror is still a few processes away. You have to be patient, like Selvaraj and his workers. They wait, having changed into their grimy work clothes that were hanging on the rope, for each step to conclude.
All the workers in the 19 smithies that make the Aranmula mirror belong to the Vishwakarma caste. They were, under the caste system, artisans: goldsmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths and masons. “We lost our other trade to other castes. We want to keep at least the art of metal mirror-making to ourselves,” says Selvaraj, about the exclusionist caste system that still prevails in the workshops of Aranmula. They possess not only an old art but also an ancient smear.
Kannan L polishes copper rings in which the mirrors will be placed. He, like the other five workers in Selvaraj’s smithy, was a goldsmith. When big jewellery brands stormed into the cities and small towns of Kerala and their machine-made bangles and necklaces glinted in shop windows, traditional goldsmiths lost out. Like Kannan, Murugan PL, Rajeev Kumar and Ratheesh Kumar were once goldsmiths. Even as machines took over their earlier trade, they realised that a handmade metal mirror was growing in popularity—and happily found work there. Kannan makes about Rs 15,000 a month: “It is enough for my family,” he says, “enough to send my son to an English-medium school nearby. I don’t know how long handicrafts will survive, though.”
The mirror is at once the great realist and the mischievous deluder. It is in the mirror that you encounter yourself, and yet that image is not you, but a lateral inversion of you. When you look into the Aranmula mirror, you see more than yourself. You see myths floating like slag. You see kings and wars and blood dripping down the streets 300 years ago. You see a shrine, the Parthasarathy Temple, embellished with a legend that is as old as the Mahabharata: its idol, the story goes, was worshipped by Arjuna when the Pandavas went on a pilgrimage after the coronation of Parikshit. The dark-green Pamba River, on whose bank lie the temple and the Aranmula village, carries stories as well as sunshine on its waves.
If the craftsmen are to be believed, their story begins in 18th century Travancore, as southern Kerala was then known. It was a patchwork of minuscule kingdoms. P Gopakumar, a craftsman of Aranmula mirror, claims King Marthanda Varma of Travancore brought a few families of artisans from Sankarankovil in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, to make bronze vessels at the Parthasarathy temple. The backstory that the Aranmula artisans have now agreed upon goes something like this: when the region’s craftsmen became lazy, an irate king withdrew all financial assistance to them. To win back the favour of his majesty, the artisans one day created a crown that was resplendent like glass. That, they say, was the beginning of the Aranmula mirror. There are no records to back this story which seems to exist in the twilight zone between reality and a marketable myth.
What we know is this: King Marthanda Varma (1729-58) rode out of Thiruvananthapuram for a 20-year-long military campaign in Travancore—a distance that can now be easily covered in three hours on an express train. The powerful sovereign was, however, racked with remorse after the bloody battle of Aranmula. “The battle of Aranmula was in 1749,” says Sreerenganathan KP, who is working on the local history of the place. “The king of Thekkumkoor, a small kingdom, arrayed unarmed Brahmins against the Nair warriors of Travancore. The Thekkumkoor king hoped that [the warrior] Nairs would not commit the great sin of killing Brahmins. When the Nairs refused to fight, Marthanda Varma got together Maravars (fishermen) to attack the Brahmins.” They slaughtered these Brahmins who thought they could get away by throwing stones and flinging curses at the enemies. A victorious Marthanda Varma marched on to the next battlefield, but the bloodshed of the Brahmins hung heavily on his conscience.
“In November 1752, according to the contemporary poem Aranmulavilasam Hamsappattu, a contrite Marthanda Varma came to the Parthasarathy temple for a 12-day bhajana (prayers),” says Sreerenganathan. “That is when he decided to renovate the temple.” It is possible that Marthanda Varma, who brought courtesans and musicians from Tamil Nadu, got craftsmen too to his kingdom. Scientist Srinivasan says she has found an Aranmula mirror with a Travancore emblem that probably dates back to the 18th century.
In his workshop, Selvaraj moves on to the next—and most crucial—part of mirror-making. He breaks the cooled-down alloy into tiny silvery shards. To the rectangular mould that has already been made—two baked clay slabs that is bound together, leaving a 3-mm gap—he attaches a cup-shaped crucible with a small hole that acts as a neck between the two parts. He fills the cup with fragments of the alloy and seals the entire thing with clay. He then puts the mould upside down into the hearth, with the cup holding the alloy deep in the fire. This will ensure that the metal melts. Once the mould glows a deep-red, he fishes it out of the fire and lets it stand upright. Now the melted alloy flows into the mould, spreading evenly across it. This alloy has to cool for a day. When Selvaraj breaks the mould, he will find a 3-mm thick material that looks like opaque slate. This is what will become the mirror after many hours, sometimes days, of polishing, but you wouldn’t know it when you see it.
Srinivasan, who has written several papers on the metallurgy of South India, and co-authored one on the Aranmula mirror with Ian Grover of the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, in the journal Current Science, says this is the clincher: “The skill of the artisans lies in the fact that they were able to devise a process of casting in a closed crucible, which minimised the brittleness of the alloy by creating a very thin mirror blank. It cooled faster, thus minimising inhomogeneities and reducing brittleness. It can now take a very high degree of polishing to get the best possible mirror effect. Also, in glass mirrors, there is slight refraction. Unlike glass mirrors, if you place the end of a pencil on an Aranmula mirror, the points of the pencil and its image will seemingly ‘touch’ each other, with no gap. In that sense, it is an ideal mirror-making material.”
The slate-like slab is broken into desired circular sizes and then attached to a wooden slab with a handle to be gripped when it is buffed-up. This is polished over hours: first it is rubbed on water paper of varying thickness to remove blemishes. If you look at the disc now, you just see a shimmer of sunlight, nothing more. A few more hours, and you see a blurred image of yourself.
The disc, coated with oil, is eventually polished on velvet spread on a sheet of glass kept on a gunny sack, and then the velvet is replaced by something as mundane as white cotton T-shirts. Hours of labour later, you will see the glint of the burnished mirror. You look at it and it looks back at you, mouth agape, and then you break into an astonished smile— and your image smiles back. That, there, is magic.
“It is auspicious. Every home should have one,” says Gopakumar. When I hold the mirror high in the first floor of the building where Selvaraj works, I see reflected in it a world far removed from this smithy that still moves to 18th century measurements: there is Aranmula Cooperative Bank, English Drug House, Mammas Bakers selling cakes and achappam, Greenland with its Nokia and Samsung phones, an aluminium and stainless steel fabrication shop, a Western Union money transfer outlet, a shop repairing laptops, a CITU flag fluttering next to a peepal tree that acts as the natural centre of a roundabout. This is the modern landscape of any village in Kerala, consuming electronic goods and packaged food with equal relish. When I ask around, most of these shopkeepers shake their heads and say: “No, we don’t have an Aranmula mirror in our home. We have gifted it though.” It is a souvenir for a faraway land.
Steve and Elizabeth, two tourists from England, walk into Selvaraj’s smithy. They buy a two-inch mirror for Rs 2,000. A six-inch one will cost over Rs 10,000 and a 12-inch one will set you back by over Rs 1 lakh. Elizabeth exclaims, “We don’t have anything like this back home.”
Yet, all civilisations had this—the metal mirror—before the cheap, silver-coated glass mirror became common in Europe in the 19th century and reflected faces everywhere, including in British India. Srinivasan says: “China is especially famous for its metal mirrors, but their bronze contains 25 per cent tin along with several percentages of lead. The lead might have been added to make the bronze less brittle, but lead, being an opaque material, would have resulted in a less reflective surface than the delta bronze used in the Aranmula mirror. The mirrors from ancient Egypt and Harappan period are likely to have less tin content: maybe 5 to 10 per cent. Not many examples of mirrors have been analysed from India, although 19th century British explorer JW Breeks, in his account of metal artefacts uncovered from the Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu, mentions a bronze mirror with 30 per cent tin. But it has not been analysed by more precise contemporary methods.”
So that mural of a resplendent green yakshi admiring herself on the wall of the Pundareekapuram temple in Kottayam was definitely looking at a metal mirror.
The Aranmula mirror will never let you forget its true nature: that it is metal, not glass. The mirror will stain and tarnish easily, and needs to be handled with great care. It has to be cleaned and polished at regular intervals, and tucked away in a plastic cover. No, don’t even think of hanging it in your bathroom and brushing before it.
Selvaraj washes his hands and looks out into the fields. It is the site for the proposed Aranmula airport, which is met with stiff opposition from environmentalists. “If the airport comes up, I will lose the earth I have always used to make my moulds. I will lose this workshop. I will lose my mirrors,” he says. “The airport will do Aranmula a lot of good, but I will have to move out of [here]. And if I move out of Aranmula, I lose the right to make the Aranmula mirror. What will I do then?”
In a room away from the smithy, Selvaraj has put up his elder son Sarath’s school project on a wall: ‘Different Kinds of Work,’ it says. A farmer is working in the fields. There is a mason laying the bricks. A woman is working on a computer. There is research going on for satellite weather forecasting. It is impressive work by a young boy. He doesn’t have, though, a picture of barefoot magicians turning metals into mirrors.
“I can’t ask my children to follow in my footsteps. They should want to do this. It is too early for them to decide,” says Selvaraj of his sons, Sreejith, 7, and Sarath, 11, as I look around the house.
No, there is no Aranmula mirror in Selvaraj’s house.