A right royal hand


The "Hindulsation" of Ganjifa must have helped spread the game... Navagraha Ganjifa cards.  

Ganjifa today is a craft in a crisis. Its only hope of survival, not merely as an art, but as an everyday Indian game, lies in someone's finding a trump in its fraying pack, says ADITI DE.


THEY encircle a square of white cloth on the floor, playing cards in the afternoon. An art historian, a traditional painter from Mysore, a student of contemporary art, and a renowned playing card collector. The collector deals out the used 96-card eight-suited Moghul Ganjifa from Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, four at a time. The historian begins the round, laying down a raja or Mir of the golden Surkh suit that represents the sun, escorted by a lower value attendant card. During the day, Surkh opens the game, but between dusk and dawn, the silvery Safed Mir, which represents the moon, has the privilege. At times, the Pradhan or minister on horseback of the strong Shamsher suit, representing a curved sword, wins the round. At others, a lower card of the Taj or crown suit sweeps up the others. In this no-trumps, no jacks, trick-making game, the winner is the one who collects the most cards, regardless of their value.

It seems an ordinary enough deal. Except that unlike the 13-card, four-suit laminated paper deck of 52 we set out our tricks with, theirs catch the eye. Either square or rectangular or round, these Ganjifa cards are individual to the eye and to the touch. Each has a noble or a king, a bird or a fish, a bloom or a musical instrument handpainted on it, and each has a significance beyond the pantheon it is drawn from.

For these cards, celebrated at the Ganjifa exhibition and workshop at Bangalore's Kannada Bhavan from May 19 to 22, organised by the southern regional centre of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) — first crop up in the Indian annals when the Mughal ruler Babar sent a set to a friend in Sind in June 1527. They have come a long way since, through the Craft Council of Karnataka's workshops in Bangalore in 1995 and 1997, and similar events in New Delhi and Mumbai.

The recent round of Ganjifa in Bangalore links back to the elderly men who still play dashavatara Ganjifa of 16 suits with a 192-card pack around the temples of Puri. And further back to Emperor Akbar, who invented the game of 96 cards with eight suits of 12 cards each, now known as Moghul Ganjifa. How do we know of this? His vazir and biographer Abul Fazl recorded the details in his book, the Ain-I-Akbari.

Kishor N. Gordhandas, a Mumbai-based collector with over 75 Ganjifa sets to his name since 1981, notes through a slide show that ushered in the event, "The Hinduisation of Ganjifa must have contributed greatly to the spread of the game. Dashavatara Ganjifa depicting incarnations of Vishnu was the most popular card game in Rajasthan, Bengal, Nepal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka."

His introduction makes one backtrack through history. To a game in which the evocation of "your Rama did this" or "your Matsya lost and my Narasimhan won" was said to remit sins. To Krishnaraja Wodeyar III of Mysore (1794-1868), an expert Ganjifa player, who revived the game. To the 636-card divinity-adorned Chad sets of Mysore that could form a single game, more a test of memory than strategic skill as in all Ganjifa. To the etymology of Ganjifa, probably from the Persian ganj for treasure or minted money.

Today, the evolved craft of handmade Ganjifa languishes at Bishnupur in West Bengal, Nirmal in Andhra Pradesh, Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, Mysore, and pockets of Orissa. A sorry plight for these artworks on ivory, tortoise shell, mother of pearl or enamelled precious metals once prized by nobles and rulers under the Mughal empire. Deprived of royal patronage, these exquisite game cards today grace the galleries of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, the German Deutsches Spielkarten Museum at Leinfelden and Vienna's Museum for Volkerkunde.

"Isn't it fascinating that in Bishnupur Ganjifa, Rama Raja opens the game during the day, Narasimha at twilight, Kurma on a rainy day and Matsya during the night?" asks Gordhandas, his enthusiasm undimmed.

Despite these gasps from a dying craft, some signs of hope surface ... from 1993, National Award winner Raghupathi Bhatta, the son of a head cook at the Udupi mutt, who set up the International Ganjifa Research Centre at Mysore. Enthused by the Ganjifa cards he bought from the local palace in the mid-1970s, he learnt the craft from a traditional practitioner at Nagamangala. Today, his nephew Gurupada H. is central to the recent workshop, one of over 500 enthusiasts trained by Bhatta, who honed the technique of crafting cards of handmade paper to depict magnificent kings, their wise ministers, deities in myriad avatars, or intricate flora and fauna.

Housewives and art students alike flock around Gurupada at the workshop, trying to draw lines and ornamentation as fine as his on their dashavatara Ganjifa cards, whether depicting the Kurma, Vamana, Krishna or even Buddha avatars. But even more artists-in-waiting huddle around soft-spoken, dhoti-clad National Award winner Banamali Mahopatra from the Pattachitra Crafts Village at Raghurajpur. Mouse-hair brush in hand as he paints with natural pigments on cloth-sandwiched roundels held by tamarind glue, he reveals the predicament of the craft that has fed his family for over 10 generations, "I do ritual paintings at the Jagannatha temple in Puri, like other chitrakaras in our family. And I often play a hand of Ganjifa with three of my friends. But there's no money in Ganjifa sets. We do just 30 or 40 sets a year, only if we get orders ... "

The master at work... Ganjifa national awardee Banamali Mahapatra.

The master at work... Ganjifa national awardee Banamali Mahapatra.  

Mahopatra's voice fades into the story of Subhash Chitari, one of 10 ancestral families in Sawantwadi who have made dashavatara or navagraha Ganjifa cards for at least five generations, sets beautiful enough to be included in the trousseau of Maharashtrian brahmin brides. He has never watched a game of Ganjifa played. "Kishor bhai from Mumbai sends us some orders. Funnily enough, the foreigners who buy our sets often use them under their glasses, as coasters," Chitari notes with a smile. He adds, "But we can't make a living from these. We fill our bellies from the sale of small baskets of wooden fruits at Rs. 500 each."

Craftspersons from Nirmal, who once executed Moghul Ganjifas for the Muslim gentry and dashavatara sets for Hindu nobles, share their plight through N. Satyanarayan, "Kishor bhai taught us to play Ganjifa. We make Changarani sets, our version of the Moghul Ganjifa, which sell for about Rs. 2,000. My two older sons and I also make 120-card dashavatara sets, which are more expensive. But most of the year, we do wooden and lacquer toys, which have a larger market."

That explains why Gordhandas was unable to order a Ganjifa set from Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, where the craft had flourished. Or why an artist from Kashmir, the origin of superb papier-mache sets, could execute just seven sample cards at a Mumbai exposition. Or why the Foujdar clan from Bishnupur, absent from this workshop, were lauded by the Malla rulers of 16th Century Bengal.

After a Mumbai crafts mela, they were ashamed to return home without selling their cards. So, they left their Ganjifa sets with Gordhandas, who has often stayed with Oriya artisans to share their plight firsthand. Over 20 years, he has sent 450 to 500 sets to collectors abroad. But can he sustain the craft on his own?

How can Ganjifa be given a new lease of life, beyond workshops and crafts bazaars? By taking it out of drawing room cabinets into playing dens, where families could gather over a hand or two. The IGNCA staff toss up the idea of a Ganjifa club, where enthusiasts could meet to sharpen their card skills. Once possessed by the game, they might invest in a hand-painted pack.

Because, no matter its royal antecedents, Ganjifa today is a craft in a crisis. Its only hope of survival is if one can find a trump in its fraying pack, not merely as an art, but as an everyday Indian game. How long will that winning hand take?

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