A fading art

downfall For almost 2,000 years, Ganjifa art enjoyed a good run. But the current digital age seems to have pushed this beautiful artistry into oblivio
Last Updated 25 May 2015, 17:19 IST

A  brain teaser of a game, a fabulous entertainment tool and an awe-inspiring art and
artefact – Ganjifa cards are all these and so much more. In existence in the world for the past 2,000 years, it is believed that the Moghul rulers bought this art from Persia to the country. The word Ganjifa is derived from two words, ganj meaning treasure and ifa meaning betting.

Initially, Ganjifa cards portrayed particular themes like fish, elephant, sword. As it became popular among Indian kings, it is believed that mythological characters started showing up on the cards and soon, blended in with our traditions. Many also believe that this particular art had its origins in India, where Ganjifa cards were called kreeda pathra in Sanskrit.

Today, even though the game is no more in existence, Ganjifa as a miniature art form can be seen in some pockets of Orissa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal apart from Mysuru in Karnataka. Among various styles of Ganjifa cards, Mysore Ganjifa is the most popular for its intricate lines, rich and everlasting colours and most importantly, expression.

A royal touch
Mysore’s tryst with Ganjifa got prominence during His Highness Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (Mummadi Krishna Raja Wodeyar, reign 1799-1868). With the fall of Vijayanagar Kingdom, a group of artists moved to Mysore and another to Tanjore in Tamil Nadu and gave birth to two well-known styles of art, Mysore and Tanjore schools of art. The Mysore style scored over Tanjore style for its fine details, delicate lines and amazing expression. 
A fine mix of art, fun and intelligence, Ganjifa card game made kings bet entire cities sometimes. Ganjifa catered to all  classes of the society. Ganjifa cards used by royals had intricate works of gold. Variety of items like ivory, shells, leather and paper based cards were in use on which artists used to paint by using super-fine brush and natural colours. While round cards are highly popular, rectangular Ganjifa cards were also in use.
Krishnaraja Wodeyar III himself was a prodigy in art, culture, Sanskrit literature and astrology. Thanks to his efforts, the Mysore style of painting saw some of its good days. He indigenously designed variety of Ganjifa games apart from other indoor games. In his scholarly book Sri Tathva Nidhi, the section titled Kauthuka Nidhi entirely deals with different types of indoor games, the rules of which were designed entirely by him.

While Mysore style of paintings charmed everyone in the world, artists started to incorporate its fine details in the Ganjifa cards too and this attempt bought them great success. They used to create miniature paintings on cards sized 7cm (diameter) and based all their paintings on mythological characters. The themes included Chamundi, Dashavatara, zodiac signs, ashta dikpalakas, ashtalakshmi, sapthamatrika and so on.

These cards came in mainly two varieties – Durbar Ganjifa, made of high quality materials like ivory and gold and was meant for royal families and super-rich classes of the society; Bazaar Ganjifa, made of lower quality materials and was meant for everyone else.  
But in all, the Mysore Ganjifa were known for their brilliant hues of natural colours and mythical themes. The intricacy, range and saturation of colours, originality and novelty added with fine expression can hardly be seen in Ganjifa from other regions. Recognising the elegance of Mysore Ganjifa, it was even accorded with a GI (Geographical
Indication) tag.

On the decline
Unfortunately, with the fall of royal administration, the game and art form started to slip into oblivion. “The cards used by royal families and aristocrats for games has now turned into mere wall showpieces. Nobody knows how to play Ganjifa games anymore,” opines Ramadas Adyanthaya, a retired artist, Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA). “Many artists have given up on this profession as it is a laborious job and commercially not viable,” opines another artist from Mysuru.

“No one knows exactly how to play Ganjifa. The current digitally-hooked generation isn’t interested in such traditional games nor is it interested in the pure art form,” laments Narasimhan, superintendent at Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery.

“People hardly come into my shop asking for Ganjifa cards. Very rarely, only antique collectors come in asking for old Ganjifa cards,” says Vittal Rao, a dealer of traditional Mysore and Tanjore paintings and antique artefacts.

But all hope is not lost. Art circle credits the efforts of the artist Raghupathi Bhatta for reviving Mysore Ganjifa art. He has done extensive research on this form of art and his works are widely appreciated.

Another prominent Mysore Ganjifa artist is Chandrika, whose father, late
Ramanarasaiah, was the palace artist and later, the curator of Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery. Having been exposed to the art right from her childhood, she has learnt all the nuances of Ganjifa from him. Her sister Sudha Venkatesh is also an expert at making Ganjifa cards. “Ganjifa is micro-miniature art. Over a period of time, there has been a gradual deterioration in the quality of the workmanship. I can’t replicate the quality of my father’s works,” she says.

There are many workshops that teach this art but the learning process ends  there. “The learners’ tryst with Ganjifa ends with what they learn in few days of workshop,” Chandrika laments. “Ganjifa cards are used as memorabilia today.

People take one-off pieces instead of the entire series,” she opines.  Girija is another artist from the city who deeply loves painting Ganjifa cards. “People sometimes ask me to make Ganjifa art as memorabilia for marriages and other such social functions. Mounted cards are given as souvenirs these days,” she says.

She also throws light on the problems associated with the decline, “With growing age, making Ganjifa cards gets difficult. It puts high pressure on your eyes and even if you go wrong in one line, the whole has to be discarded,” she says. Having conducted Ganjifa art workshops and exhibitions abroad, she noticed foreigners showing keen interest in Ganjifa art.

“Commercially, it is not viable. Making a Ganjifa card involves laborious work of preparing colours and patiently creating the delicate miniature art piece. Artist has to put extreme pressure on his eyes and it takes around 2-3 days to create one card. What more, people underestimate its value and hesitate to pay,” says artist Veena who makes Ganjifa cards on demand.

Seems like a bleak future is in store for Ganjifa artists and lovers. The younger generation isn’t keen on learning the art and neither the formal art schools include it in their curriculum. So, the day wherein we find these little pieces of beauty only in the museums is not far. Currently, you can find Ganjifa cards in museums like Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery and Jayalakshmi Vilas Museum in Mysuru, Manjusha Museum at Dharmastala and Hasthashipla at Manipal.

(Published 25 May 2015, 17:19 IST)

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