In Adakkaputhur village in Palakkad, Kerala, there’s a 45-year-old man who yearns to pass on his family’s trade secret to a worthy heritor. But he is unable to find one. Krishnakumar is a short, stocky man with a wide smile and bright eyes. He spends his days in a workshop, attached to his house, making handmade metal mirrors known as Adakkaputhur Kannadi. The workshop seems like it is plucked out of the last century. And the mirrors have a timeless aura. Krishnakumar uses the same metallurgy techniques that his father, Balan Mooshari, used when he first discovered the secret of making Adakkaputhur Kannadi, aeons ago.
Krishnakumar is the sole practitioner of the craft. If the status quo continues, in all probability, he will be the last one too. His three older siblings have taken a different route in life. His children aren’t interested in carrying on the family legacy; they’d rather get into engineering or IT industries. Krishnakumar is willing to teach the trade and share its secrets with someone who has the perseverance and dedication essential for pursuing this craft. “And there isn’t much money in this either,” he says.
BEGINNING OF ADAKKAPUTHUR KANNADI
Krishnakumar’s father Balan Mooshari belonged to the Mooshari community known for their metal crafts — bronze figurines, ornaments, utensils and tools. He had a patron in Kunnath Raman Namboodiri, a wealthy and prominent person in Adakkaputhur village. He was also enamoured by the famous Aranmula kannadi also from Kerala. (Adakkaputhur and Aranmula are the only places in the world that make handmade metal mirrors. Both have their own safely guarded trade secrets). Unlike glass mirrors, there are no secondary reflections in metal mirrors. In other words, if you touch an object to the surface of a metal mirror, there will be no gap between the object and its reflection unlike in glass mirrors.
Raman Namboodiri urged Balan Mooshari to make a metal mirror that Adakkaputhur can be proud of. Few in the village believe that Balan Mooshari went to Aranmula to learn the secrets of the trade, but returned empty-handed. He spent the next few years experimenting with various metallurgy techniques trying to figure out the secret. However, Krishnakumar insists that his father never went to Aranmula. “My father worked hard for five years and created Adakkaputhur Kannadi through trial and error. Adakkaputhur kannadi came from his imagination, not from Aranmula,” he says. Either which way, the truth is Balan Mooshari came up with his secret formula for making beautiful metal mirrors which soon came to be known as the Adakkaputhur Kannadi.
Krishnakumar began helping his father in the workshop from when he was a little boy. Not out of choice. But more out of respect and fear for his father. “Back then, you listened to your parents without questions,” he says. “But all I wanted to do was go out and play with my friends. Instead, I would be stomping on clay until it reached the right consistency.” Today, he’s grateful for those years, because it has made him a meticulous and fine craftsman.
Adakkaputhur Kannadi is unique because it is made entirely by hand in Krishnakumar’s little workshop. He also handcrafts the tools used in the making of the mirrors. Adakkaputhur Kannadis are not mass produced. Krishnakumar makes only three or four mirrors a month.
It takes six days to make a two-inch (diameter) mirror, 10 to make a three-inch one and 14 days to make a four-inch mirror and so on.
Large-sized mirrors can sometimes take months to make. Creating an Adakkaputhur Kannadi is a slow and tedious operation that requires the unwavering attention and concentration of the craftsman.
HOW IT’S DONE
The process begins with creating a cast, in the requisite shape, using wax made of a combination of beeswax, castor oil and sambrani also known as benzoin resin. The cast is covered with three different kinds of mud or clay ranging from black sand from the river bed to a powdered mix of old roof tiles, cow dung and mud. A small opening is left uncovered. Once the cast is dry, it is heated in a fire, and the wax seeps out through the opening. The cast is heated for the second time at a higher degree to remove all the air from inside. “Air trapped in the mould prevents the alloy from being poured into it,” Kumar explains.
Simultaneously, copper and tin along with other secretive metals are melted at a temperature and in a ratio known only to Krishnakumar. It’s the secret handed down from father to son. The melting of the metals can take up to five hours. “Even a small mistake at this stage can negate all the hard work, and we will have to start all over again,” Kumar says. That was one of the reasons why Moosharis never entertained anyone while at work. Their workshops were off-limits to outsiders. “I had seen my father get angry and irritated when somebody disturbed him during the melting process,” recalls Kumar.
The melted alloy is poured into the dried mould and left to cool overnight. The next morning, the clay mould is broken to reveal a blackish metal piece. Krishnakumar then spends hours and sometimes days polishing the metal with an emery paper until it turns into a blemish-free reflective surface. It usually takes up to three hours and more to polish a two-inch metal piece.
The seemingly boring process becomes meditative for the craftsman. Kumar listens to songs on the radio or chats with friends who drop by while doing this monotonous chore. However, he has to be extremely careful because even a slight increase in pressure could result in a broken mirror and one has to start the process from step 1 – right from making the clay and wax mould. Once the metal surface becomes reflective, the mirror is placed in a bronze shell (which is again handmade at the workshop) and locked by folding the edges into a triangular-shaped design.
These metal mirrors are auspicious items in Kerala. They are coveted gifts and also used in marriage ceremonies and other Hindu rituals. The mirrors become family heirlooms and passed down generations.
It was only around 20 years ago that Kumar began earning a decent remuneration for all his hard work. Today, he has stopped doing other bronze works and makes only metal mirrors. He makes only one design in three sizes apart from working on specific orders. A two-inch mirror costs Rs 6000, three-inch is Rs.8000 and four-inch is Rs.10000 and so on.
There’s a great demand for Adakkaputhur Kannadi, but Krishnakumar says that there aren’t enough hands, other than his, to execute the orders. He refuses to automate or mass produce. He is aware that he will “never” become a rich man by practising the craft using traditional techniques. Then why does he do it? “At some point in life, a man wants to be recognised for something more than his contributions to the daily grind. He wants to be recognised for his talent, for his ability to do something different, something only he can. He wants to leave behind a legacy,” says Krishnakumar. “I do it because my name will forever be associated with Adakkaputhur Kannadi.”
However, a legacy can continue to live only when somebody commits to carry its beacon. Krishnakumar hopes to find that ‘somebody’ before it is too late. For the sake of Adakkaputhur.
A version of this was published in Blink, The Hindu Business Line