Of the 25 units in Kerala that make the GI-tagged Aranmula mirrors, 18 workshops have been completely destroyed in the floods that ravaged Kerala.

Damaged workshops rusty tools Aranmula mirror artisans stare at a bleak future
news Kerala Floods Monday, September 10, 2018 - 16:06

When we think of Aranmula in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, we think of the ubiquitous brass-framed Aranmula kannadi (mirror). The mirror is made exclusively in this town and was the first object to receive the Geographical Indication (GI) tag. But today, the massive floods that Kerala was witness to last month has put the future of the Aranmula mirrors, and the craftsmen engaged in this art for decades, in limbo.

As soon as we enter Aranmula, the vestiges of the flood – swirls of dust, heaps of sludge and water lines on the walls – are hard to miss. Walking through a unit near Aranmula Sathram, which has made mirrors for several decades, was like walking through the ruins of a bygone civilisation - shards of glass, broken pieces of clay moulds, mounds and sacks of sludge and clay, fungus-ridden boxes and dirt-enveloped rickety furniture.

As the sludgy ground squish beneath the feet, we enter the workspace, where boxes of rusty files and wooden slabs lie idle, while the craftsmen are hard at work, trying to build a new furnace and mirror moulds.

"This is the state of a majority of units here," says Gopakumar, who runs this unit near Aranmula Sathram, situated at the mouth of Pamba River.

Maintained by Vishwabrahmana Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Society (VAMMNS), Kerala has 25 units producing these mirrors, spread across two panchayats in the district – Aranmula and Mallapuzhassery. Of this, 18 units have either been completely destroyed or have been significantly damaged during the floods.  

Gopakumar, who is also the secretary of VAMMNS, pegs the initial estimate of the overall loss at Rs 1 crore.

According to him, though the district experienced a flood-like situation in 2004, "the water level this time was about 10 feet more. It was unexpected and quick, so we did not have the time to shift our tools and machinery."

Engaged in this craft for over 40 years, Gopakumar gives an exhaustive list of damages his 11-member unit has suffered. Among these, the loss of around 6,000 mirrors, which were made to meet the festive demands of Onam, has put him in a spot.

Gopakumar

"These mirrors cannot be used again," he says. "They have suffered aberrations. The mirrors have to be dismantled first and built from scratch. To do so, it requires Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 worth of labour costs."

A large number of light-weight wooden panels used to process the mirrors were swept away in the floods. "And since it was Onam, we had a huge stock of these panels," adds Gopakumar.  

An element vital to their craft, the tools to make the mirrors now lie rusted. "One day in water can render these tools ineffective. These rusty tools, including chisels, hacksaw blades and hammers cannot be used for filling, engraving or embellishing designs on the frame,” he says.  

Among the heaps of debris gathered in one corner of the compound, chunks of wooden charcoal have been laid out on a blue tarpaulin. These are used in the furnace, along with coconut coir, as a softening agent.

"Theni in Tamil Nadu has special trees, whose barks are used as charcoal. We had bought sacks of this from Theni for Onam, with one sack costing Rs 1,000. The floods took with it a sizable amount of charcoal, and we are now left with only a handful of wet coal," says Gopakumar, pointing to the tarpaulin.  

The moulds in which the mirror is cast, machines to buff or polish and grind the brass frame, furnaces and thousands of gift boxes to keep the mirrors in are among the flood-ravaged items, putting Gopakumar's loss alone at Rs 28 lakh.

“In fact, a lot of Aranmula mirrors were booked for various programmes to celebrate Onam. Because Onam celebrations were cancelled, all programmes too were cancelled, eventually affecting our sale,” says Gopakumar.

For Syam S, the floods did not just cost him his workshop, but his house as well. One portion of the house functions as the workshop. Syam, who took to the craft 12 years ago, works along with his parents and relatives, keeping the art within the family.  

The floods washed away their clothes, utensils and the roof of their house, and almost the entire workshop. "Only the furnace has been left behind," says Syam, who has been living at the house of another family member since August 15.  

"For artisans who make Aranmula mirrors, our prime season lasts for three months in a year, that is during the Onam season. People from across the country come here this time to see the Aranmula boat race and take part in 'valla sadya', which is a religious tradition where devotees offer meals to the crew of the snake boats to please lord Krishna. The remaining months, we survive on the money we earned during the three months. Then, when the season approaches, we take loans again to make these mirrors,” Syam says.

According to Ashokan, president of VAMMNS, there are only 125 artisans in Kerala, who are directly involved in making the original Aranmula mirrors. “One unit has four to 10 artisans. They earn Rs 800 per day, though there are some work extra hours to get Rs 1,000 per day. On an average, one mirror takes two to three days; but it varies according to the size.”

Artisans like Gopakumar, whose workshop is intact, have squared their shoulders to start work with whatever resources and raw materials they have left. “We take clay to make the mirror moulds from the paddy fields here. But the sludge has formed a thick carpet over the clay at the units and the paddy fields. Luckily, we have a few sacks of clay to run the work for three to four months. We have started making the furnace and moulds,” he says.

For artisans like Syam, on the other hand, who have lost their home-cum-workshop, the future looks bleak. “While I have started cleaning out my house, there is nothing left to clean the workshop. It is empty,” he says.

With no immediate help from banks and government in the offing, these artisans are hoping that corporates and other stakeholders, with an inclination towards art and culture, will step in to help.

“Coincidentally, we had just met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 10, requesting him to exempt Aranmula mirror from GST, as this is the only existing village to making them. And four days after we returned, Aranmula was flooded,” says Gopakumar.

Ashokan adds, “While it may take about six months to set up the factory again, It will take at least one year for the craft to run smoothly again. People from across the state buy these mirrors from us, but today, they are equally affected due to the floods. Our priority now is to cull the necessary raw materials such as tin, copper, brass, charcoal, mud and the machinery, because this craft is our life and our livelihood.”

This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala.

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