Woman fighting to revive vanishing Ganjifa art

Woman fighting to revive vanishing Ganjifa art

The dexterity attained over 43 years doesn’t let 72-year-old Mohan Shamrao Kulkarni to quiver even a nano-centimetre while painting Lord Rama on a small circular piece of paper using a 2 mm painting brush. His brush loaded with bright poster colours moves over the paper like a magician weaving his wand during his performance. After hours of laborious work, the “Ganjifa card” is created.

Kulkarni, a national award winner, is one among the few artists in India who has kept the ancient tradition of Ganjifa cards alive in Sawantwadi nestled in the Konkan region of Maharashtra.

In Persian, Ganjifa means play cards and it is the ancient form of the modern card games. The game was introduced in India by the Moghuls in the 16th century. During the heydays of the Moghul empire, it had become customary to gift dignitaries and royal visitors a set of Ganjifa cards made of inland ivory, tortoise shells and precious stones.

With the game catching up with the royal families in India, the native rulers began shunning the Moghul style of Ganjifa cards because of their foreign origin. Instead, cards depicting various Hindu mythological figures commenced. So, the kings employed the best craftsmen to paint Ganjifa cards with Indian deities on them. 

According to locals, there were at least 13 types of Ganjifa cards in India, including the ones that were patronised by the Maharajas of Mysore (Mysore Chad ganjifa).

However, it was the rulers of Sawantwadi who came up with multiple forms of Ganjifa bearing Hindu themes painted using bright basic colours like red, green, yellow, black etc. It is said that some Telugu Brahmins basically passed on the art to the Chitaris, a class of artists in Sawantwadi. Along with introducing Dashavatara Ganjifa cards, which had intricate designs of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Sawantwadi artisans developed Ramayana Ganjifa, Rashi Ganjifa, which had motifs representing the zodiac signs, Chankachan which had musical instruments, Ashta malla Ganjifa and Naqsh Ganjifa. The type and method of preparing these cards depended on buyers. While the royal families played the game with ornate and grand cards, the commoners enjoyed with much sober ones. The popularity led to experimentation with the patterns and motifs painted on the cards.

This card game also contributed in popularising Hinduism as it narrated interesting mythological stories. People believed that the game gave them an opportunity to utter the name of the god. The art had almost vanished by 1970.

In 1971, the royal family of Bhonsles, the scions of Sawantwadi kingdom, hired an 80-year-old Pundalik Chitari, the only artist said to have known the Dashavatara Ganjifa art at that time, to revive the art form.

He bequeathed upon the art of making the cards to five youth from the Chitpavan Brahmin community. One among them was Mohan Shamrao Kulkarni. “I was 29 when I came to Sawantwadi to learn Ganjifa art and now I have dedicated almost four decades of my life to it,” he says with pride. He has mastery over all the four forms of Ganjifa cards that the “Sawantwadi Lacquerwares” presently makes. But this time, the Ganjifa turned more into an iconic art form rather than a complex card game.

The artists take nearly 15 to 20 days to produce one set of Dashavatara Ganjifa cards that are sold for Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000.  The tradition of gifting these cards still continues in the upper class, says  Kulkarni.

Presently, Ganjifa cards which are painted by some artists in their creative workshop located in one of the palaces of the Sawantwadi royal family, are 10 suited 120 cards Dashavatar Ganjifa, nine suited 108 cards Navagraha Ganjifa, 12 suited Rashi Ganjifa, 10 suited musical instrument ganjifa etc. These cards come in a variety of sizes ranging from 3 cm to 10 cm in diameter and shapes. The cards are painted on a cartilage paper in a pleasing manner with an “Avatara” seated in the centre. They are then packed in an easy-to-handle painted sliding box with a chit explaining the rules of the game.

However, life is not all rosy for the artists. With very little support from the Maharashtra government, the artists are struggling to survive. “Had the earlier governments encouraged us, we could have popularised this art form,” says Satvashiladevi Bhonsle, an artist herself and who has been fighting for revival of the art form. “This is our culture and tradition. It is the responsibility of the government to carry this to next generation,” she adds.

The erstwhile queen is against handing over the manufacturing unit or letting out the secret of making Ganjifa to the government as she fears that it would run these units for the sake of profit and ruin the art form. “We have seen many art forms flourishing under the patronage of the royal family. But when they were taken over  by the government, the artists were left in the lurch and the art form perished,” she adds.

Instead, the government should help the artisans by reducing taxes. “If the government reduces sales tax, then we will be able to pass on that monetary benefit to the artists,” she says.

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