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The Art of Ganjifa

By Aparna Datta

Ganjifa is a word signifying playing cards, or card games in India, Nepal, Iran, some Arab countries and Turkey. It is a game resembling the modern ‘card play’ and is believed to have had its origin in India one thousand years ago, known in Sanskrit as Kreeda Patra. This indoor game became a royal passion during the Moghul rule, patronized by the Badshahs – Babar and his daughter were experts in the game, according to some historians.

With Persian and Arabic influence, the game came to be known as Ganjifa – meaning money or treasure – and playing for stakes became a favourite pastime amongst the aristocracy.

By the sixteenth century several types of games had developed in India. Abul Fazl, the wazir and biographer of Akbar the Great writes in his ‘Ain-I-Akbari’, a book on the institutions and activities of the Imperial court, about the games played by the Emperor, and the eight-suit variation that evolved.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, card playing became and accepted and popular pastime in the innumerable Indian courts, from the imperial court in Delhi to the palaces and houses of sultans, nawabs, subahdars, rajas, jagirdars, not to mention the zenana (women’s quarters).

The classic Moghul Ganjifa with ninety-six cards and the standard eight-suits spread all over India, but apparently never reached the deep south of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The game was carried along with the spread of Moghul culture, penetrating different regions and new social strata. The Deccan, with its intermingling northern and southern, and Hindu and Muslim cultures, became perhaps the most fertile region for the development of a great variety of cards and games.

The Hinduisation of Ganjifa themes certainly contributed to the spread and popularity of the game. In the Deccan, the ten-suited Dashavatara Ganjifa gained prominence in the seventeenth century. The Dashavatara Ganjifa, with the avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu presiding over the ten suits, was the popular card game in Rajasthan, Bengal, Nepal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhara Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

The structure and rules of play of both the games are essentially the same, though in the Dashavatara Ganjifa the number of suits and cards have been increased to make the game more complex, and the designs feature Hindu deities. Variations continued to evolve – the Orissa pack has expanded to twelve suits with the addition of a Ganesha and a Karthikeya suit, and to sixteen and twenty suits by the addition of further divinities.

The Brahmins of Maharashtra took to the game with great enthusiasm, and different sorts of eight, nine, ten and twelve suited Ganjifas were attempted such as the dikalpa (eight regions), navagrahs (nine planets), rashi (twelve signs of the zodiac) and Ramayana themes.

Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar of Mysore (1794-1866) brought about a great revival in the art of Ganjifa. In the last chapter of his monumental encyclopedic work, the Srihatwa Nidhi, the numerous packs of cards invented by the ruler and his artists have been described in great detail. The chadda games with upto 360 cards in a pack were very complicated, each suit presided over by the various gods and goddesses of the south Indian pantheon.

The traditional Ganjifa cards were handmade and hand-painted using vegetable and mineral colours, each single card being a work of art. As the demand grew, groups of chitrakars (painter craftsmen) in numerous centers produced cards catering to every local taste. Two styles generally prevailed, the durbar and the bazaar, the former made by artists for the rulers and the nobility and the latter for a less affluent clientele. The range in quality and size was wide and the lively interaction between patron and artist led to experimentation which in turn resulted in new variations and themes. Certain chitrakar families flourished under the patronage of the rajas.

The process of making Ganjifa cards was laborious, involving all the members of a family. Generally, pieces of cloth or rags were glued, layered, stretched, dried and primed with an extract of tamarind seeds and coated with lime, burnished with stone several times till a smooth surface was obtained and the pata ready. Roundels were cut from the sheets with the help of templates and scissors and then the colours laid in several stages; finally the senior artist would draw with a fine brush the black outlines and the details of the figure cards; junior artists would draw the pip cards.

The Indian playing cards were packed in painted boxes whose beauty often matched that of the cards within. The rich or durbar cards were made of ivory, tortoise shell, mother-of-pearl, sandalwood and even in-laid or enameled precious metals. The bazaar cards were made of paper, fabric, papier-mache, leather, fish scales and stylographed palm leaf.

With the arrival of European colonists, the Ganjifa gradually turned from an active game into artwork. European traders, administrators and soldiers brought their own card games and Indian artists began reproducing the European style.

In the nineteenth century, printed cards featuring stylized figures of French kings, queens and knights were introduced, and the hand-painted Ganjifa came to be considered too expensive.

Today, the Ganjifa remains a unique craft, a collector’s item, treated more as an art form rather than a game. Kashmir, West Bengal, Orissa and Maharashtra are some of the centers where the art is still in practice, each with a distinctive style.

Mysore holds pride of place in this unique craft tradition. The Mysore style shines bright, with national award-winning artist Raghupathy Bhat take the craft to new heights. Bhat has established the Ganjifa Art Gallery at Mysore, the only dedicated Ganjifa museum in the world. His works also have a place at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

“Ancient Indian texts prescribe specific directions for the depiction of the human form,” says Raghupathy Bhat. “I wish to preserve the integrity of the Indian tradition…Ganjifa cards which carry myriad forms, give full expression to creativity.”

M Ramanarasiah was an artist at the Mysore palace during 1947-60 and subsequently curator of the Jagmohan Art Gallery till 1978. He is a respected Ganjifa artist and today his daughter Chandrika Padmanabha, the youngest of eight children, carries on the family tradition. Chandrika, with encouragement and support from her husband, set up Navya Enterprises in 1983. She creates Ganjifa cards and traditional Mysore paintings and sells her work through outlets such as the Central Cootage Industries, Cauvery, shops at temple complexes and Rama Mandirs. Combining talent with marketing savvy, Chandrika is a woman entrepreneur and an inspiration to others.

With its complexity and glorious history, Ganjifa has major potential as a cultural event, a game as much for private homes or clubs. Once the consuming passion of kings and commoners, Ganjifa looks to a new generation to try another round.

© Aparna Datta, 1999

Published in Spectrum/Deccan Herald, Bangalore, July 2, 1999



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