Mirrors of Aranmula: How artisans of Kerala are fighting hard to keep a tradition alive

Tremendous in-flow of migrant labourers into the state has badly hit the traditional makers of the Aranmula Mirror.
Mirrors of Aranmula: How artisans of Kerala are fighting hard to keep a tradition alive
Mirrors of Aranmula: How artisans of Kerala are fighting hard to keep a tradition alive
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An Aranmula Mirror was gifted by our Prime Minister Narendra Modi  to the British first lady Samantha Cameron on his recent visit to United Kingdom. These mirrors already occupy a place in the British Museum as well as at the Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, in this case Queen Elizabeth the Second.

These eponymous metal mirrors showcasing centuries of traditional handiwork and cultural identity are produced in the Aranmula village of Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. According to the local legend, these mirrors with their royal lineage were an accidental invention of a group of temple craftsmen from Tamil Nadu, while making the idol of the temple deity Sri Parthasarathy  of the Aranmula temple as per the directions of the then ruler of that place.  

These ethnic mirrors however had a literal royal letdown when 10 to 15 members of the younger generation of the traditional craftsmen from Tamil Nadu were forced to protest in front of the Secretariat building in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, in a bid to gain the state government’s attention to their plight. What made this protest unique was that till then the actual making of the Aranmula Mirror was guarded in secrecy by these traditional craftsmen and the exact proportions and dimensions involved in its making were known only to them. This protest saw them reveal the manufacturing process for the first time in public, right there on the pavement. But what made them resort to such an extreme step?

The daily wage labour sectors in Kerala have seen a tremendous in-flow of migrant labourers into the state. Hence the local youth here are denied opportunities as these outside labourers are more than willing to work at lower rates. This has badly hit the traditional makers of the Aranmula Mirror. To add to their problems, a few societies which produce large numbers of these mirrors with the help of craftsmen from Andhra Pradesh have moved legally against these traditional artisans, claiming that they do not have the patent to make it.

“We had taken a GI to make these mirrors in 2003 under the Viswabrahmana Aranmula Metal-Mirror Nirman Society.  Some of the business-oriented people in our native place started another society in 2005 with a name similar to ours ‘Viswabrahmana Metal-Mirror Nirman Society’ (note the slight difference in name). Now when we started a shop, fearing competition they have filed a petition alleging that we don't own a patent,” one of the protesting craftsmen Murugan R Aranamula told TNM.

“We are the traditional makers of these mirrors over the last four to five generations. They make mirrors with the help of labourers from Andhra Pradesh. Since they don’t use the traditional method to make it, we naturally had more customers than them. This obviously irked them,” Murugan adds.

Another of their craftsmen, 78-year old Ponnappan Achari says that making of these mirrors is a long process and it needs a certain standard of purity of self.

“It will take two to three days to make small mirrors and almost three to four months to make larger ones. The costs range from Rs 3,500 to Rs 2 lakhs. The artisans who make it should have purified himself through certain rituals before actually making it. The artisans are required to take a vratham (oath),” Ponnappan explained.

These craftsmen allege that migrant labourers don’t follow these traditions while making these mirrors, and therefore in a way cheat the people who buy these mirrors both for their artistic value and also for the cultural and traditional connotations associated with them. With the increased competition from these duplicate mirror-makers, the number of traditional artisans who chose to follow their traditional occupation of mirror-making has considerably decreased.

“People of the Viswakarma caste are the ones who make these mirrors traditionally. There were many families who belong to this caste and who possess the knowledge to make it in Aranmula. But now only less than 10 families remain in this field because of this unhealthy competition from migrant labourers,” rued Murugan.

These mirrors are made using clay from the local paddy fields and bell-metal. To make the mirror, the lost ancient wax method of casting is used. The bell-metal mirror is then given a coating of metallic powder mixed with special oil. The artisans then painstakingly rub the metal with a special cloth over several days. Only then does one have the famous Aranmula Mirror in hand. Now all that should be known is whether the government is ready to look into it?

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