A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi

Tracing the traditional card recreation of ganjifa, now painstakingly preserved in Maharashtra.


A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi 1

It can take an artist as much as a month to create a set of playing cards. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter

Is it like rummy?” I ask, attempting to make sense of the attractive playing cards unfold out earlier than me—mythological figures painted in vivid colors with floral and geometric motifs. “Ganjifa is never played with money,” Rajmata rebukes, “the cards have the face of god, and you never gamble with god.”

It’s a balmy February morning and I’m with Satwashila Devi Bhonsle, erstwhile queen of Maharashtra’s princely state of Sawantwadi, a two-hour drive from Dabolim. We sit in the courtyard of her spectacular, 18th-century pink brick palace. A stately octogenarian, Rajmata, as everybody calls her, is inducting me into an historic card recreation. Ganjifa arrived in India over 500 years in the past and was fashionable amongst the rajas earlier than cheaper taking part in playing cards from Europe arrived in direction of the tip of the British Raj.

Despite having all however disappeared from the general public creativeness, traces of Ganjifa nonetheless survive in small pockets in Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra, and Mysore, the place devoted communities of artisans attempt to maintain the card-making craft alive. Here in Sawantwadi, a small city set round a man-made lake in the foothills of the Sindhudurg vary, beneath the affected person and decided patronage of Rajmata Bhosle, Ganjifa is slowly rising from obscurity.

“By the 1970s there was just one Ganjifa artist left in Sawantwadi who made one set a year which he sold for 30 rupees,” she tells me. “At the time no one was interested in learning how to make the cards; it is a long and painstaking process with no demand. Most of the traditional artisans had either moved to cities like Bombay or abandoned card-making for more lucrative options.”

A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi 2

Rajmata’s assortment of classic Ganjifa playing cards, packed in fantastically painted picket containers. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter

The royal household determined to make use of and prepare conventional artists to provide Ganjifa a brand new lease of life. “It took a while to convince them, to understand and introduce the traditional painting styles, but we now have five artists who produce Sawantwadi Ganjifa cards for us, and get orders from all around the world,” Rajmata says proudly.

The precise origins of Ganjifa are hazy, however the earliest variations of the sport might be traced again to the late 14th century round modern-day Syria and Egypt. Travellers’ accounts converse of Ganjifa’s reputation in Persia, not solely amongst aristocratic lessons, but additionally gamers in road cafés.

Ganjifa travelled to the subcontinent with the Mughals, the primary detailed account of it exhibiting up in the
16th-century Ain-i-Akbari, the place it’s known as a well-liked pastime alongside polo, pigeon-flying and cube. The Mughal model of Ganjifa was a 96-card recreation with eight fits, every depicting a operate of the royal courtroom, such because the crown, the treasury, the armoury, the mint and so forth.

While Ganjifa was suppressed in Persia by the orthodox Shah Abbas II, its reputation in India unfold with the affect of the Mughals. Hindu rulers made the sport their very own, introducing variations that finally led to the event of the Dashavatara type. Played with 120 round playing cards, this grew to become the usual format in the subcontinent and stays the one model of Ganjifa nonetheless surviving.

“The Dashavatara Ganjifa is based on the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu,” Rajmata provides. “It was popular across most of the princely states, including Sawantwadi.” The Bhosale king Khem Sawant III was primarily liable for patronising Ganjifa right here, inviting conventional artisans from the Chittari neighborhood of Goa to provide the playing cards. Descendants of the unique Chittari migrants dwell in Sawantwadi, a stone’s throw from the palace. Most now paint picket fruit and lacquer toys that discover their strategy to vacationer houses.

“Besides being a game and an art form, Dashavatara was also used to teach people about our culture and stories from the scriptures, which is why we never gamble with Ganjifa,” provides Rajmata. “It was simply played to pass time and build a sense of community.” She remembers a time when women from aristocratic households would collect for afternoons of playing cards and dialog.

A Royal Game of Cards in Sawantwadi

The Indian Ganjifa set comprises 120 playing cards based mostly on the Dashavatara, the ten avatars of Vishnu. Photo by: Hoshner Reporter

Sawantwadi’s artisans sit in the palace’s regal durbar corridor. The work of creating intricate photographs of nature and avatars of Vishnu in shiny colors is gradual. Depending on the complexity and richness of the design, a hand-painted deck of 120 takes anyplace from 15 days to a month to create.

Traditionally made of leather-based, pine leaves and papier mâché, the playing cards are pink, inexperienced, brown, yellow and black. The colors—now artificial—was extracted from minerals and crops. Rama is normally represented in yellow, Narasimha in inexperienced, and Kalki in black to suggest the tip of the world.

Having seen the brand new units, I’m curious to see older renditions and ask Rajmata the place we will discover vintage playing cards. Rajmata smiles conspiratorially: “For the most beautiful ones you will have to visit the Victoria and Albert museum in London. But don’t worry, I also have a few sets.”

Rajmata’s assortment arrives with Kulkarni, an artist who has been together with her since 1976. The playing cards are packed in shiny pink and inexperienced picket containers, adorned with photographs of Ganesha and scenes from the Indian epics. I decide up the tiny works of artwork to review the finer particulars. They are beautiful, reminiscent of miniature work, the colors muted over time however nonetheless wealthy. The face playing cards are notably fascinating, with completely different units reflecting particular person themes, from portrayals of Vishnu, to pictures from courtroom life, in addition to battle scenes.

I ask if folks in Sawantwadi nonetheless play Ganjifa. “All the old people who would play are gone,” Rajmata sighs, “and the games can get so complex that besides the simple trick-taking games, nobody really knows how to play. We are collecting bits and pieces of information from here and there, but there is still so much we need to rediscover,” she says. (A set of handpainted playing cards, made to order at Sawantwadi Palace, prices Rs8,000.)

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