History & Culture

Game with Ganjifa cards

Ganjifa, an ancient Indian card game, was historically believed to have been brought to India and popularised during the Moghul period. The Persian word ‘Ganjifeh’ means playing cards and these were the foremost artistic creations used for playing cards, more so in princely States where kings patronised the art and the artists.

The cards were typically circular, although some rectangular decks have also been part of the artists’ imaginations. This was a game popularly played by post-Medieval Kings and noblemen that spread to many regions in the country. The colour and iconography changed with each region developing its own version of the game. Needle-fine lines that depicted the subject was one more aspect of the intensity of deftness embedded in the art form.

While it sounds unfortunate that the name Ganjifa itself faded into oblivion, the speciality that involved traditional hand-painting and microscopic detailing stirred many an artist and organisation to take up their revival and re-invent the form in the last few years for creating awareness. One such institution is Bengaluru’s Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath (CKP) that recently released a nearly 200-page hard bound book ‘Splendours of Ganjifa Art’ containing 12 chapters on the nuances and history written by well-known Ganjifa artists, scholars and historians.

“In 2018 the Chitrakala Parishath (CKP) had a workshop and exhibition on Ganjifa and we had brought in the best artists from Mysore, Sawantwadi, West Bengal and Orissa that saw an overwhelming response. With that as the starting point for collecting data on artists and art work, we worked on bringing out the book this year to have everything about Ganjifa put on record for posterity. I am happy the Parishath was equipped to do this as this book is considered the first comprehensive and detailed documentation of the art form with contributions from practising artists and art scholars. We even have royal Ranisaheb Subhadadevi Bhonsle tracing the development of Sawantwadi Ganjifa and lacquerware,” says MJ Kamalakshi, General Secretary, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath.

‘Splendours of Ganjifa’ says KCP President BL Shankar, is a reponse to contemporary issues about an art form from the past. “How did we come around to dividing the art of the past into categories as clasical, traditional, folk or tribal? Then where does the art of Ganjifa fit into this typological chart?The book is enriched with articles from experts who address all these points of view. The book also brings thoughts from compilation of discourses and ideas generated in workshops and camps at CKP over the years.”

The Parishath’s earlier publications include ‘Karnataka Leather Puppetry’ and ‘Traditional Mysore Paintings of Karnataka.’ “It was time the Parishath brought out a book on Ganjifa, for, in the last six decades we had indirectly been on the job as we were reviving and rejuvenating Mysore traditional paintings for housing an exclusive gallery. And Ganjifa being an extension of the traditional art, renowned art critic BVK Shastry had advised us to collect the cards six decades ago to have them on record for the Parishath,” says Kamalakshi.

In 1977 during the Folk and Tribal Art expo Rajasaheb Parashuram Shivram Bhonsle and Rajmata Satyasheeladevi Bhonsle conducted workshops, demonstrations and sold boxes of Ganjifa cards at the Parishath. While artist Subramanya Raju of the Chitragaar family from Mysore revived the Mysore school of paintings, he also started a class in the Parishath in the genre in 1971. In the 1980s Raghupathi Bhatta began working with the forms of Ganjifa and took a keen initiative in popularising the form. By then, Sudha Venkatesh, a well known Ganjifa artist from Karnataka, was consistently experimenting on the forms, genres and styles of Ganjifa, according to CKP. In 1995, the Crafts Council of Karnataka held a seminar on the dying art forms of Karnataka in which collector Kishor Gordhandas’ observations and interventions for revival of Ganjifa were exemplary, which is also included in the book.

The Mysore Ganjifa

In the 19th Century the Maharaja of Mysore, Mummudi Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (1794-1868) had a niche created for the game and art of Ganjifa. The patron of art and learning devised a number of variants for board and card games. “Kouthuka Nidhi, the last Chapter of Sritatvanidhi, the monumental work of the Maharaja, has details of the card game of Mysore, known as the Mysore Chada Ganjifa. It mentions the names of the card games devised by the Maharaja, number of cards used in each game, details of iconography, colour combinations and the corresponding shlokas,” says Kamalakshi adding that the games were devised by the King and he had artists who would design them in his court under his guidance.

Krishnaraja Wadiyar has come out with 13 complex card games, requiring anything from 36 to 360 cards covering mythology, puranas, astronomy and astrology. Themes as Dashavatara, Navagraha, Pancha Pandava, Saamrajya and Naveena Ramayana are his creations. “Thin fine line miniature paintings with decoration were mounted on card board. Later some artists were also inspired by the Vijayanagar style. Ganjifa cards were also known as ‘kreeda patras’ and were also made on sandalwood pieces and ivory, etched in enamelled silver and gold. The complexity of the game and the dominance of western printed 52-leaf playing cards later silenced the art, craft and the game,” says Kamalakshi.

Variety in Ganjifa

There was the Sawantwadi Ganjifa from Maharashtra, Navadurga Ganjifa from Orrisa, Rajasthan and Gujarat, Kashmir Ganjifa, Nepal Ganjifa and the Mysuru Ganjifa. “While we have several artists remain in Mysore even today, in Raghunathapur near Puri in Orissa every house has a Ganjifa miniature artist,” says Kamalakshi.

Tracing history

Ganjifa originated in Persia in around the 15th Century, according art historian and scholar RH Kulkarni, who has the historical appraisal of Ganjifa in the book. Kulkarni, who teaches in the art faculty of CKP says “The antiquity of the game is as old as the human existence itself. The origin of Ganjifa cards are however traced in Persia and China, while scholars have also traced them to Arabian countries. In India they arrived through Sufi Saints during Mughal period, and gradually became popular amongst the kings and and kingdoms. “The Moghul GAnjifa cards had paintings of wrestlers, acrobats, swordsmen, soldiers, hunters, musicians, animals and birds. As it spread toother regions, the colour and iconography changed, and largely stuck to devotional themes,” says Kulkarni, who heads the Research Centre at College of Fine Arts, CKP.

Reviving the treasures

Ask renowned artist Raghupathi Bhat, who after being inspired on seeing some 200-year-old Ganjifa originals of Mysore began working on them in the early 1980s and developed his own unique styling. Raghupathi who hails from Udupi and is settled in Mysore says these days they are sold as craft objects, as they are cherished for their aesthetic value, although “there is less scope for innovation.”

Following traditions

Sudha Venkatesh, a senior artist in Mysore exposed to Mysore traditional painting and Ganjifa through her father Ramnarasaiah, an artist and curator at the Mysore Palace diligently follows the traditional method of drawing. “Although my father felt Ganjifa was a dying art from, the detailing, he said, spoke of wonders. So he sent me to take guidance from Kishor Gordhandas when he came to Mysore,” says Sudha a practising artist. She is also very sure that the Mysore styling never did make use of painting on leather. “Leather was unthinkable as the King would never have used leather for drawings of Gods. During those days it was done of stiff paper boards, prepared by pasting sheets of paper with glue,” says Sudha.

Full deck

* There are about 100 Ganjifa artists in Karnataka today, which includes people who have been trained

* Chitrakala Parishath has more than 500 Ganjifa cards of various schools in its collection

* Sudha Venkatesh and Chandrika Padmanabh, daughters of the late M Ramnarasaiah the artist at Mysore Palace, are practising well-known Ganjifa artists popularising the art.

* The earliest surviving card of the Mughal period are datable to 1600CE with the biography of Akbar mentioning the card; and Babur, the founder of the Moghul empire, mentions Ganjifa in his diary in 1527.

* Contributors to Splendours of Ganjifa include Ranisaheb Shubhadadevi, Kishor Gordhandas, RH Kulkarni, Dr. Pramila Lochan, Dr. Arunima PAti, KK MAheswari, Gwenael Beuchet, Saraswathi K Bhattathiri, HA Anil Kumar, Suresh Jayaram

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2020 7:56:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/game-with-ganjifa-cards/article29962309.ece

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