How a call from Russia reminded Kerala’s Aranmula mirror makers of pre-pandemic prosperous times

The sector fell into bad times as labour and raw material costs increased due to floods and the pandemic

By Nivya Chandran, Krishna Raj
Published: Friday 19 August 2022

Sudhammal, a third-generation craftsperson at the Sree Parthasarathy Handicraft Mirror Centre who makes Aranmula Kannadi (rare metal alloy mirror), received a phone call from Moscow earlier this year. 

The caller wanted to place an order. “I was searching for a unique and precious gift for my friend in Ukraine and I came across a documentary on Aranmula Kannadi.” Sudhammal could not believe her ears. 

This was not the first time she was receiving an order from abroad but it came after a lull of the two pandemic years.  

Aranmula Kannadi literally means the mirror of Aranmula, a small town in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala. It was the first craft item from the state to receive a geographical indication tag in 2005. 

These special and rare mirrors are created by a handful of highly skilled traditional artisan families belonging to the town’s Vishwakarma community. The alloy formula they use is a secret passed down through generations. 

Made on demand, every piece, irrespective of its size, takes significant time and effort to finish. The uniqueness of this mirror is its front reflection, unlike the back reflection in normal glass mirrors. This means the reflective surface is placed on a back support, as opposed to regular mirrors where the reflective surface is behind glass.

These mirrors also have a cultural significance in Kerala: It is regarded as one of the eight auspicious objects (ashtamangalya) displayed during religious festivals or auspicious occasions and ceremonies. 

It is believed to bring prosperity, luck and wealth into the life of its custodian. But the same has not been true for the makers. 

Hard times

Like most handmade products, the process of making the mirrors is labour intensive. The rise in labour wages and input costs have made survival difficult for these craftspeople. 

The floods that hit Kerala in 2018 and 2019, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, have severely affected these businesses. The flood destroyed their workshops including their stocks, raw materials and moulds. 

They did receive a small monetary support from the government after the floods to rebuild their houses. But they haven’t received any support for rebuilding their workshops or restarting their businesses.

“Before the floods, I had employed three-four labourers. But now, I am managing all by myself, because I cannot afford the cost of any extra labour,” said Sudhammal.

The sales had reduced drastically in the past few years owing to these unprecedented factors. To make things worse, these craftspersons are yet to receive a huge amount as pending payment from the government-run handicraft development corporation for their procured products. Due to this reason, many of the craftspersons have stopped selling their products to the corporation.

These artisans had formed ‘Vishwabrahmana Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Society’ to coordinate and market their products collectively. But they have not been able to elicit specific support from the government towards subsidising inputs and obtaining cheaper capital. 

“Tin, which is the most important ingredient in the making of this mirror, is imported from foreign countries these days. This has increased its cost,” said Niranjan, an MBA post-graduate who had taken up the family occupation of mirror-making owing to his passion for protecting the traditional craft.

In order to keep the legacy of the Aranmula mirror alive, more youngsters have to learn this unique craft. However, according to young craftspersons like Niranjan, no one is willing to engage in the work due to lack of economic profit, financial support, encouragement and recognition. 

This is not only the plight of the Aranmula Kannadi but also of other exquisite crafts from Kerala such as the Nettoor Petti, Chundan Vallam and Payyanur Pavithra Mothiram, all of which are on the brink of extinction. 

It is a matter of great pride and happiness for these artisans that someone from Russia has chosen to order an Aranmula mirror as a gift of love and peace for his friend in Ukraine amid the ongoing war.

However, when asked how long they think their rare craft and business can continue, they responded with an uncertain and painful smile. The craft is safe in the hands of these skilled artists. 

Their survival, however, is dependent on the policies and support provided to them by the government. If the migration and exodus from the traditional occupation of these skilled Vishwakarma craftspersons continues, the once-prevalent and famous exquisite crafts of Kerala may head towards a slow but certain death.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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