I love mirrors. They let one pass through the surface of things.
- Claude Chabrol, film-maker.
WHAT DO MIRRORS DO, APART FROM REFLECTING, one wonders. Enchant? Flatter? Deflate? Seduce? Inspire? Mystify? Deceive? Or can they also lead you into another world? Another state of being? It all depends perhaps…. But one keeps looking, in any case.
In one of his ghazals the great 18th century Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir, spoke of the bewilderment of a mirror:
moonh taakaa karey hai jis tis kaa
hairati hai yeh aa’ina kis kaa
[It keeps looking now at his face, and now at another; and keeps wondering-this mirror-who do I belong to, whom really?]
In the legends that grew round the figure of Alexander the Great, there is one about an enormous curved mirror installed atop a lighthouse at Alexandria which would project fire’s light into a beam to help faraway sailors at night, but also serve as a weapon, concentrating the sun and thus setting enemy ships ablaze. But the more absorbing one is of a philosophical bent. In it, as told in the Persian classic, Iskandernama, the great conqueror longs to see something that would show at once both reality and the illusion of reality, and one metalworker at his court succeeds in inventing something: a mirror, consisting of a sheet of bronze so highly polished as to reflect to perfection.
The famous devotional text, Hanumana Chalisa, by the great bhakta of Rama, the saint-poet Tulasidas, opens with lines which millions of Indians recite daily even now:
shri guru-charana saroja raja/nija mana mukura sudhaar
barnaun raghuvara vimala yash jo daayaka phala chaar
[Taking the pollen from the auspicious lotus-feet of my guru, I must first cleanse the (bronzed) mirror of my heart; then along can I proceed to sing the unsullied glory of Rama, bestower of the four-fold gifts]
Each land, each culture, has had its history, and its fascination, for mirrors, one knows. The phenomenon of reflection is enticing and has been explored from a variety of perspectives; scientific, philosophical, religio-magical and so on. There are talismanic and curative purposes of which mirrors have been used. Themes and meanings keep attaching to the mirror in this manner: in our own lands, thus, judging from the examples cited above, bewilderment, reality and the illusion of reality, the need to keep the mirror of the heart clean and free of all impurities. The aspects seem to be endless.
Balan Nambiar- protean figure that he is, and used as we are to seeing him work on massive stainless steel sculptures in his ‘Vulcan-like’ workshop-turns to mirrors too. But in his own fashion, and according to his own wont. Knowing as he does his home- Kerala-from the inside, his mind turns almost naturally towards seeing the mirror as a sacred object. For there it is associated with the great goddess, Bhagavati. The association is strong, pervasive, in fact almost of mystical dimensions. In shrine after shrine there, the mirror is installed, as he says, in place of an idol of the goddess. From time to time, when temple processions are taken out, the mirror moves out of the shrine, being carried either on the head of a priest, or still higher, on the head of an elephant, as Titambu, a symbol of divinity. The every idea of the mirror occupying this exalted position is spectacular. He has written about it while describing the great teyyams: the preparation that the performers make, mirrors in hand, contemplating themselves; the reverence that which the mirror is generally approached by devotees; the power that inheres in it on account of its closeness to Bhagavati. The kannati-bimbam- bronze ‘idol’ with an aureole or prabhavali as a surround- stays fixed on a pedestal inside the shrine, but everyone knows that it is made in the same process, and with the same rituals that belong to the casting of a figurative idol. It is therefore special, a magical object, divine in status, “Paying obeisance to the Kannati-bimbam,” Balan tells us at one point, “is considered one of the highest forms of worship in Kerala.” Val-kannati, also a mirror, also cast in bronze alloy, is somewhat different from the Kannati-bimbam inasmuch as it is a mirror with a handle and can be a household item, apart from being a ritual object. Owned often by women, it remains an auspicious object even when kept in a house, for at every sacred ceremony it would be taken out and given a place of honour.
Balan knows all this of course, but creates his own universe of mirrors. All too aware that even sacred mirrors vary in shape and size, he proceeds to play with the form, whether of the Kannati-bimbam or the Val-kannati. In his repertoire of stainless mirrors, there are stunning forms; elegantly proportioned and finished plates in wavy shapes, receding or advancing but with a perfect disc in red at their heart; round discs superimposed upon other discs and al within a perfect oval; flat bi-lobe plates opening like the leaves of a book, as if gazing at each other, while a large circular disc keeps an eye on both from behind; and so on. At times it all changes. With flat triangular plates exquisitely arranged s as to approximate to a three-dimensional shrichakra- sacred symbol of the goddess, emblem of the coming together of purusha and prakriti- he moves into another, contemplative world where a circular mirror rises above it all, glistening like the full moon in the night sky. A maze-like steel structure made up of thin rods, spiky and questioning, emerges from his mind like an altar before the goddess who manifests herself as a mirror at the back but overshadows everything else. Concentric circles turn into vibrations of sound in Ballan’s hands and solid steel moves and shimmers like a sheet of placid water when the wind moves gently over it. Sacredness is never very far from these forms and we are constantly reminded that the Val-kannati is sacred because the goddess gaze into it taking it in her hand, and the Kannati-bimbam has this exalted status because in it has been reflected at some time the images of the goddess. Everything moves on at least two levels.
Speaking of puja in a north Indian temple, I wrote once wondering how many people have actually witnessed the complete, preparatory ceremonial of it. It is arresting. Long before the image of the deity is revealed to the devotees for ‘darshan-s’, 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 mantra-s. But when all this is finished, the priest takes a mirror in his hand and holds it up to 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.
I sometimes think thatintheelegant, affecting mirror forms he makes, Balan-all too aware that there is something that connects divinity with mirrors-is always holding a conversation of his own: with the deity one the one hand and with the devotee or the aesthete on the other.