The small Keralan town of Aranmula gets its name from Arana, or six in Tamil. Aranmula is famous for its unique mirror making tradition where metal mirrors are made from a cast alloy of copper and are polished by hand. In Kerala, these auspicious non-glass mirrors or kannadis are passed down, inherited or given away as gifts thought to bring austerity and good luck; they also occupy a central element in a bride’s trousseau. The magic of the kannadi is in the image, considered to be in its purest form (and used by Kings and Queens for this reason); for, unlike ordinary glass mirrors, the light is reflected directly from the mirror’s surface rather than the back – with no refraction. The recipe used for the mirror alloy is a closely guarded secret with the families of Aranmula, said to be given to them through the voice of God – in a dream of one devoted ancestor who changed the lives of many to come.
In our studio at Tiipoi, we have been researching the technique behind this highly scientific and complex process (contrary to the spiritual backdrop and stories that come with it) for over a year – towards the creation of Mirror 6 as the largest mirror ever made in Aranmula to date, for London Design Festival. We dedicate Mirror 6 to the families of Aranmula who have been bequeathed the knowledge of this ancient and mythical method of mirror making for over 600 years.
The mirrors are cast in relatively smaller sizes -to be used as hand held pieces or ornaments- hardly a match for the singular 55 cm feat we were attempting with Mirror 6 (we had to overcome the rumours of the British Museum holding the largest Aranmula kannadi in the world measuring 45cms). As far as the casting process goes, the alloy is cast no more than 3mm thick as a delicate flat surface that is then polished by hand over many days to obtain a highly flawless reflection. Considering this, it’s no surpise that Mirror 6 alone took us over three months to create. To cast a molten alloy of copper of this immense size in one’s backyard, is hardly considered part of daily life even to an accomplished family of mirror-makers. The sheer size and weight of the alloy cast (weighing close to 30 kilograms) cost us not less than five attempts to make, and we were close to giving up all hope when we struck gold with the sixth.
For generations, the finished mirror has been housed in an ornate brass frame. As part of our research, we decided to explore how we could focus on the materiality of the mirror alloy – which over the years had been rendered secondary to the more decorative aspects of the frame. Having never been attempted before, we designed a new bespoke housing to enhance the mirror’s delicate casting process. Housed within a Sheesham wood frame, we proposed that the cast shape of the mirror be left uncut – enhanced by the glow of an inset copper ring, speaking of the primary composition of the mirror alloy.
For London Design Festival ’14, Tiipoi has been invited by the Sir John Soane’s Museum to show the mirror as part of a curated exhibition titled ‘Space & Light’. We couldn’t have asked for a better home for Mirror 6 and hope that this is the beginning of creating a new path for an ancient craft, through a vision of the future that belongs to both worlds.