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
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
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
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
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