The art of play

The ancient card game of Ganjifa is on the revival path as a work of art, with several artists in Mysuru getting innovative

Ganjifa cards

Ganjifa, an ancient card game, has been forgotten more or less today. Like the game, the art of making Ganjifa cards was also fading into oblivion until recently. Card games have been popular all over the world since ancient times. Each country had its own cards, designed in tune with local art and culture. Like all other traditional card games, Ganjifa too suffered, both as a game and a craft, with the invasion of the printed 52-leaf playing cards. Ganjifa originated in Persia in around 15th century. It was introduced in India during the Mughal rule and became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In India, it came to be called as Mughal Ganjifa and was taken as a royal pastime by Mughal kings and aristocrats, who made many changes to the existing patterns and introduced new card games. The Mughal Ganjifa cards had paintings of wrestlers, acrobats, swordsmen, soldiers, hunters, musicians, dancers, animals, birds, and other common scenes of that time. As it spread to other regions, the suit sign, colour and iconography changed, with each region developing its own version of the game. The iconography on these cards became chiefly devotional. Different styles in colour lines and themes were also evolved. The coloured background of the cards helped recognition of a set. These artistic cards were either in circular or rectangular shapes and the paints used were from natural sources.

Mysore Ganjifa

The Mysore style, patronised by the Mysore royal family, carved out a special place in the game and art of Ganjifa, and this happened during the reign of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (1794-1868). The Maharaja was a great patron of art and learning. He devised a number of variants for board and card games. Kouthuka Nidhi, the last chapter of Sritatvanidhi, the monumental work of the Maharaja, has details of the card game of Mysore, known as Mysore Chada Ganjifa. It mentions the names of the card games devised by the Maharaja, number of cards, details of iconography, colour combinations and corresponding shlokas. He describes 13 complex card games, requiring anything from 36 to 360 cards. While Krishnaraja Wadiyar invented these complex games, the cards were designed by the artists of his court, under the guidance of the Maharaja himself.

The miniature paintings were inspired by the Vijayanagar mural style. These cards, also known as 'kreeda patras', were also made in sandalwood and ivory, etched in enamelled silver and gold. After the demise of the king, due to the complexity of the game and the dominance of the western-styled printed cards, both the art of play and the craft of making the Ganjifa cards were lost. The making of Ganjifa cards, however, has seen a revival of recent, and Mysuru takes a place of pride in this. A number of artists have taken to Ganjifa cards and made them popular in the art market.

Today, they are sold as craft objects and are cherished for their artistic value. Renowned artist Raghupathi Bhat chanced upon some 200-year-old Ganjifa originals of Mysore a few decades ago. Caught by the artistic beauty of miniatures on these Mysore Chada cards, he began to work on these cards in the early 1980s and developed his own unique miniature style. This artist, who hails from Udupi and now settled in Mysuru, is popularly known as ‘Ganjifa’ Raghupathi Bhat. He uses natural dyes derived from vegetables and minerals in keeping with the tradition. Sitting in his art studio near Chamundi Hills, Raghupathi Bhat explains how these cards were made during the period of Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, and the art’s path to revival. He has trained around 50 people in Ganjifa art including national awardee Vinutha Prakash, Susheela Devi, H Gurupada and Vidya Bhat. “As Ganjifa is an ancient work of art, there is not much scope for innovation. The emphasis is more on preserving the tradition,” he adds. Raghupathi intends to revive the lesser-known ‘Sarva Samrajya Peethike’, a 600-card game which was developed by Krishnaraja Wadiyar III.

He has a good collection of Ganjifa cards of different States in his studio. He plans to conduct regular workshops on Ganjifa painting and hold State-wise Ganjifa card shows. While emphasising on the need to retain the traditional style of painting using natural colours, Raghupathi says that a Ganjifa artist needs passion, dedication and effort. The use of modern paintings and colour photocopying for commercial purposes would not lead to the revival of the art. Having this in mind, Chitrakala Parishat in Bengaluru had conducted a week-long workshop and exhibition on Ganjifa art recently. While the exhibition showcased the history and evolution of Ganjifa art, it also shed light on contemporary efforts.

Crafty twist

Sudha Venkatesh and Chandrika Padmanabh, daughters of the late M Ramanarasiah who was the artist at Mysore Palace, are well-known Ganjifa artists. They have been working towards popularising the art through training and workshops. Ganjifa artist Girija Kumar admits that there is no scope for major changes in Ganjifa art. Minor changes in the dress, colour or ornaments could be made. “I have made some of these minor changes and also done embossing on the cards to enhance their artistic value,” she says. Generally, artists prepare individual cards and not a complete set of game cards as, perhaps, there is none who knows the game well enough. R G Singh of Ramsons Kala Prathishtana in Mysuru says that Bengal and Odisha, which were famous for Ganjifa, are also producing Ganjifa cards in the traditional style and marketing them as collector’s item. As a result, this traditional art form is now more or less restricted to the collections of art connoisseurs. Motivated by the fact that Ganjifa is now considered as a work of art, people are exploring different possibilities. The concept of converting a fine art form into something wearable came to artist Ramya, daughter of Ganjifa artist Girija. Her intention is to make art more accessible to people. She uses wood as the base with ivory paper. The painting is made using acrylics and is then given a fine coating of varnish to preserve the colours and make the work more durable. A suitable necklace with beads matching the colours used in the art is made. A fine hole is drilled on the Ganjifa art in order to attach it to the necklace. “This innovative wearable art form has been received well in the market,” says Ramya.

In spite of inferior quality cards available in the market today, which is posing a danger to the originality of the art, there is a good demand for these art pieces. It’s time to revel in the art of the game!

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The art of play

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