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Is the art of Ganjifa a living or dying tradition?  If this question were to be answered by art connoisseurs, a majority of them would be left clueless.  Unfortunately this is a reflection of the state of awareness with regard to Ganjifa, the traditional art of playing cards in India.

At present this art form remains as isolated, age-old practice in the homes of a few artists.  Barring a small number of museums that display these cards and enterprising art collectors, we find, to our utter dismay, many foreigners using Ganjifa cards as coasters!

Well, does this art form carry heritage value or merely amount to a drawing room collection?  Will the 'gambling' tag attached to playing cards mislead its educative value as an art form?  These and more such questions value as an art form?  These and more such questions were sought to be answered at the four day workshop-exhibition-sale organized by IGNCA-SRS, at Kannada Bhawan in Bangalore, from May 19-22.  Chairperson of the Crafts Council of Karnataka, Smt. Vimala Ranagachar inaugurated the programme on May 19 at Nayana auditorium.  Acknowledging the efforts of IGNCA-SRC, she hoped that the Centre would "fulfill the need to disseminate, to the youth specially, that Ganjifa was not merely a product for sale but a way of life for the artisans."  She was happy to note that the documentation on the subject was in progress.  Prof. P.V. Krishna Bhat, earlier, welcoming everyone, expressed his concern for this 'ancient art.'  He said "it is the endeavour of IGNCA-SRC to contribute towards the understanding of the arts from different perspectives".

Well known Ganjifa collector from Mumbai, Sri Kishor Gordhandas, gave an exhaustive slide presentation on the varied style and themes of the cards.  He said many artists who made the game cards have died and if the present generation of artists were not encouraged, the game would fade away sooner than anticipated.

Primarily addressing this concern, an exhibition and sale of Ganjifa cards, created by various traditional artisans across India, were held during the workshop.  The workshop and exhibition at the Chitra art gallery attracted a large number of viewers and participants.  Visitors gazed in amazement, appreciating the wondrous images on the cards.  For those who sought to absorb more at the experiential level, an opportunity to learn the art was provided at the workshop.


Four traditional artisan families, all national awardees, attended the sessions.  They were, Mohan Shamarao Kulkarni and Subhas Chitari from Sawantwadi (Maharasthra); Gurupad Bhat from mYsore (Karnataka), Banamali and Bijaya Kumar Mahopatra from Raghurajpur (Orissa); and Narasingam and Satyanarayan from Nirmal (Andhra Pradeshy).  Equipped with material, colours and designs they taught the art of drawing and painting the cards to forty eager participants who were a mixed group of housewives, art students and a few young men.  Generally the cards are circular and sometimes rectangular in shape with lacquered backs.  In the workshop, cardsheet and waste textile based cards were used.  In the past, different material such as ivory, tortoise shell, mother of pearl, waste paper, textile fabric and palm leaf were used.

There is no definitive reference as to when and where these playing cards were invented.  however, it is assumed that Mughal emperors brought these cards to India in the sixteenth century.  Once established, the cards spread to most regions of India either in the original form known as Mughal Ganjifa or its later Hindu form known as Dashavatara Ganjifa.  In June 1527 Babar, the first Mughal ruler sent Ganjifa cards to his friend in Sindh.  By the 16th century several different types of Ganjifa games had developed in India.  The Ain-i-Akbari gives details of cards and suit signs, described by Abul Fazl (Akbar's biographer).  Akbar invented the present game of Mughal Ganjifa.  The names of the eight suits of 96 Mughal Ganjifa widely known today are; Taj,  Safed, Samsher, Ghulam, Chang, Surkh, Barat and Qimash.


Ganj' is a Persian word meaning treasure and though the derivation is not completely established, what remains intriguing is that there is always one money suit named after a coin of local currency.  In Mughal Ganjifa, the two suits safed and surkh represented money.  Mughal Ganjifa is variously known as Chang kanchan is Sawantwadi, Chang rani in Nirmal, Navgunjara or ath rangi sara in Orissa.  In due course the Hinduization of themes greatly contributed to the spread and popularity of the game.

It is not certain whether the card games were played for amusement or speculation.  It was a popular source of entertainment in India with kings, courtiers and the common masses.  Even today, old people at Puri and Maharasthra play this game since it is believed that by repeating the name of God, sins are remitted.  The standard playing cards of India are usually a set each of 96 cards of Mughal Ganjifa and of 120 or 144 cards of Dashavatara Ganjifa.  The structure and the rules of both the games are the same except that in Dashavatara, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu are depicted.  In order to bring alive the age-old magic of the game, each evening, at the workshop, a playing session was conducted.  Cards are placed on a white cloth.  After shuffling the cards, face down on the cloth, the players cut a deal and the cards are divided equally amongst three or four players.  The player with the highest denomination starts the game.  The suits are divided into strong and weak suits.  For example in the Mughal Ganjifa set, Taj, Safed, Samsher and Ghulam are strong suits while Chang, Surkh, Barat and Qimash are weak suits.  The sequence of each suit is arranged as Raja, Pradhan and serial number ace to ten for strong suits and ten to ace for weak suits.  Each time the trick is to win the round by placing the highest denomination.  Therefore it is beneficial for a player to remember all the symbols and cards played.  By the end of the game, which is played in anti-clock-wise direction, the player who amasses the maximum number of cards is the winner.  Similarly the game can be played with the Dashavatar set, Ashtadikpala, Ramayana, Navagraha etc.  One of the greatest benefits is that besides a memory test, the game provides a good retention of traditional knowledge.

The game sessions attracted a lot of attention and on the last day after certificates were distributed, participants were keen to attend and continue painting and playing the cards.

Keeping in mind the feedback, SRC plans to hold periodical workshop disseminating the art to those interested.  In order to encourage and develop awareness in the common man, a Ganjifa forum is being initiated for teaching the art of playing the game.  This will surely persuade a larger number of people to buy cards from artisans.  SRC has also taken up an ongoing digitization of Ganjifa cards for its archives.

Eventually one hopes that the players would popularize these cards all across India.  One way is to develop this as a tool of education thereby elevating its artistic value and nurturing a legacy in heritage.

Dr. Pramila Lochan, IGNCA SRC


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