'ARt & soul
Reflections of divinity

Mirrors in many parts of the world are associated with goddesses, writes B. N. Goswamy

Kannati Bimbam: Contemporary sculpture in stainless steel by Balan Nambiar
Kannati Bimbam: Contemporary sculpture in stainless steel by Balan Nambiar

THERE is something that connects divinity with mirrors, I am sure: something that is elusive and deep and mysterious. For there are legends and myths about these connections in all parts of the world: from Greece and Rome to Japan and Africa. And there are signs of it everywhere in India.

I do not know how many people have seen the complete, preparatory ceremonial of a puja in a North Indian temple. Long before the image of the deity is revealed to the devotees for ‘darshans’, priests go about, even before dawn breaks, their appointed work: the ‘waking up’ of the deity, the lustration, the covering with raiments, the shringara. All to the accompaniment of the chanting of sacred mantras. But when all this is finished, the priest takes a mirror in his hand and holds it up to the deity, as if asking him or her to look into it. It is not a long ‘conversation’ with the deity, but an important one, both for deity and devotee. For only then follow other rituals: the burning of incense, the ceremonial waving of the lamp, the offering of flowers, the presentation of sweets. And then, the day proceeds on its own course.

In southern parts of India, Kerala in particular, the mirror becomes the subject of veneration when it is associated with Goddess Bhagavati. There are moving accounts of how mirrors are made there — it is metal mirrors that one speaks of, the Aranmula Kannati, made by hand by a class of artisans who have been practicing their craft for centuries — and the role they play in the lives of people. There is the Val-kannati, a mirror with a handle, cast in bronze, with its flat-surface polished to a mirror finish, which is treated as a ritual object, together with other sacred objects inside the shrine of the goddess, like an incense-holder, a water-vessel, an oil lamp. This kind of a mirror with a handle is used by affluent women in their homes too, but the Val-kannati in the shrine becomes sacred because the goddess gazes into it. And then, there is the consecrated Kannati-bimbam, a metallic mirror that acquires divine status because in it has been reflected the image of the goddess; as an object of worship in itself, it stays installed inside countless Bhagavati shrines in that emerald-green region. When, on auspicious occasions, processions are formed and move out of the temple, it is ‘the Goddess’s mirror’ that represents her. Then it turns into an utsava-murti, and is carried either on his head by a priest, or placed atop an elephant that leads the procession.

In northern Kerala, paying homage to the Kannati-bimbam is considered one of the highest forms of worship. Places where the practitioners of martial arts of Kerala, the famed Kalaripayattu, gather and practice, reverence to the goddess is always offered first: not, however, in her image form but her as symbolised by the Kannati-bimbam which is set up on an altar in one corner of the arena, together with a sword and a shield. In the great Teyyam performances, again, similar mirrors are installed; among one community, the Kannati-bimbam is taken out in procession for a ritual bath at the end of a nine-day celebratory event. The goddess’s mirror is everywhere, it seems.

But there is more to it than ritual, one can be certain. For, at its subtlest, the practice of placing mirrors in temples is aimed at allowing each devotee, in that sacred environment, to gaze in the mirror to be able to see himself or herself, and discover. It is as if one is asked to contemplate upon the Self. A higher goal than this is not easy to imagine. I come to Kerala mirrors, I would like quickly to add, through the distinguished artist, Balan Nambiar, a body of whose sculptural work I happened to see in Bangalore some time back. Among them were some that were inspired by the idea of Kannati-bimbams, and were even so named by him: sleek, abstract-looking objects in gleaming stainless steel, light as a bird, weighted with thought. Balan is a remarkable man, a protean figure, somewhat of a ‘high-tech freak’, celebrated as much for the singularly wide range of his work as for the energy that he pours into it.

Photographer and engineering draughtsman, as a sculptor, he has worked in many materials, from clay and stone and concrete to metal: bronze, iron, enamel, above all, stainless steel. The city of Bangalore is dotted with some monumental sculptures made by him. To enter his studio is like entering a factory shop floor.

"Vulcan’s vortex is what one imagines", as Sadanand Menon wrote about the experience. "Fiery furnaces, molten metal, aching anvils, iron ingots, hammer and tongs and sparks." But what comes out of this ‘factory shop floor’ is often so gentle, so smooth, that one has a hard time trying not to caress it with one’s hands. The sculpture that takes off from a Kannati-bimbam and accompanies this piece is so wonderfully thought out and crafted — "somewhat akin to a neatly recessed layer of peeling onions", to quote Sadanand again — that, like the sacred object in a temple, it constitutes an invitation to contemplate. The solid disc at the centre of it feels like a pebble that has been dropped into a still pool causing its surface to break into expanding, infinite, rings of thought.

It is difficult to conclude without mentioning mirrors that are associated with goddesses elsewhere: Aphrodite, for instance, always contemplating her own beauty in a mirror while at her toilette; or Venus, striking a sensuously erotic pose while gazing in a mirror held for her by Cupid. Above all, Amaterasu, the Japanese Sun Goddess, about whom and whose mirror a wonderful story is told. But of these, another time, perhaps.