Royal saviour

A former queen, now in her 80s, commanded the revival of an art form by adapting it to decks of cards

 Queen of Sawantwadi, Rajmata Satwashila Devi Bhonsle
Highlights: 
“Each ganjifa card is hand-painted. And to make it unique and authentic, we ensure that every card carries the signature of its artist,” says one of the last queens of India.

As you wait for the call, the old architecture, the red-stone outer walls covered with ivy creepers, the dark mahogany benches, chairs, the table, and the spread of the well-kept garden with some centuries-old trees transport you to a different era. The amazing feeling of sitting in a real palace to meet a real queen hurtles your thought process. 

The question is: how does one greet the lady as she is no more a queen in the real sense, as that position doesn’t exist, and how does one address her — Highness or Madam?

Within a few minutes, we get the call, and as we walk down the garden path to meet the lady sitting under the arch of the entrance of the palace, behind a solid carved teak table, her beguiling and all-knowing welcome smile evaporates the apprehension of meeting a queen for the first time.

With folded hands, the Queen of Sawantwadi, Rajmata Satwashila Devi Bhonsle, greets and offers us seats arranged for her guests in front of the table.

“Each ganjifa card is hand-painted. And to make it unique and authentic, we ensure that every card carries the signature of its artist,” says one of the last queens of India who gracefully transited from being a royalty to a commoner, after the state mergers post 1947. But even nearly seven decades later, the grace, the courteousness, the serene tackling of questions posed by journalists hasn’t slipped.

A world of colours

Start talking about the world of painting, and the transformation from being a royalty to being an artist happens in a jiffy. The feeling of interacting with a queen vanishes as Satwashila Devi starts talking about natural colours, the commonly used motifs while painting ganjifa cards, about her own love for painting butterflies and animals, especially dogs and horses. “I love painting them on small coasters,” says the lady, showing the innumerable coasters that she has painted, and which are most sought-after by foreigners and the elite of India, as each personalised coaster carries her signature.

“Butterflies are such delicate and beautiful beings, and to capture their delicateness, their love for freedom on canvas in myriad hues is enthralling,” says the queen.

“Many of our customers abroad own dogs and horses, so they send their pictures. And I paint them on these wooden coasters that I get specially made from good-quality wood. Earlier, I used natural colours. But now, we both have switched over to acrylic paints. Once I paint and dry them, one of the men from the workshop gets them lacquered. We pack them in hand -painted boxes and ship them out,” elaborates the queen.

The workshop she talks about is her ode to the art of ganjifa of Sawantwadi. Ganjifa is an ancient way of playing cards involving a set of 52 cards. These hand-painted cards are either circular or rectangular with motifs on the front and a single bold colour on the back.

The origin of these cards is traced to Persia. During the era of Moguls, they reached the Indian shores. Initially, they had Persian letters and motifs on the cards, but later, to give them an Indian touch, the royalty in India asked their artisans to incorporate native motifs, and that is how many figures from Dashavatara, Ramayana and rashis came into being.

There are other states, like Mysuru and Odisha, which have ganjifa cards. “The cards and the drawing technique are almost similar in every state, but the motifs differ and experts can discern the differences,” explains Satwashila Devi.

At present, she has five artists who meticulously paint the Dashavatara motifs on playing cards. To watch the fine and dainty lines of the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu is fascinating. The deftness with which they wield their small paint brushes to draw these miniature figures is unbelievable. And to think that this art was on the verge of vanishing from Sawantwadi is upsetting.

Unexpected strokes

Her tryst with the world of art started when, as a Princess of Baroda from the Gaekwad family, she married King Shivaji Raje Bhonsale of Sawantwadi, and came to live here. “Since my childhood, along with my brother, I loved painting. So, when I came to Sawantwadi, I was looking out for something unique and we discovered the almost-vanishing art of ganjifa cards and the unique style of painting them,” recalls the queen, who is now 80-plus years old.

She found out that there was only one man who knew this art, but due to lack of encouragement, he didn’t want to pursue it. “Both my husband and I decided to revive this and employed him in our palace to paint. He was eccentric,” she smilingly remembers. “To encourage him, we both started learning the technique to paint ganjifa cards,” she recalls those early days of the 70s and 80s. Only the royal couple’s learning couldn’t have revived the art. They had to find other artists willing to learn and practice it. One such hunt for artists had taken them to the art department of Deccan Herald way back in the 1970s.

Artist M S Kulkarni came to Sawantwadi from Bengaluru and has never gone back. “Even today, if we make mistakes or encounter some problem while painting, the queen takes over and paints!” says the frail-looking Kulkarni. But the queen is worried about the future of this art. As they are hand-painted, they are priced high, and today, as the Western style of playing cards has taken over, these cards have become only collector’s items.

“Our patrons are foreign visitors and art collectors. But after these five artists, how will the art survive? Their children don’t want to pursue this less-paying vocation. The government has to step in to save our artistic heritage,” hopes Rajmata Satwashila Devi Bhonsle of Sawantwadi.  

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