“Ganjifa Art” is the name given to the heritage Indian game of playing cards. It’s the beautiful artwork done on playing cards mostly circular in shape. Historically this game is believed to have been brought to India and popularised during the Moghul period. Quite aptly the name Ganjifa comes from the Persian word “Ganjifeh” which means playing cards.
The speciality of these cards is that they are traditionally hand-painted. The cards are typically circular although some rectangular decks have been produced. This was a game that was popular and played across Medieval India. Each region in the country had its own form of the game. There was the Sawantwadi Ganjifa from Maharashtra, Navadurga Ganjifa from Orissa, Rajasthan and Gujarat Ganjifa, Kashmir Ganjifa, Nepal Ganjifa and the Mysooru Ganjifa which was greatly patronized by the Mysore Royal family during their reign.
The Indian art styles of Ganjifa cards include hand-painted stories from the Hindu mythology and literature. Some of these Ganjifa belonging to various states are mentioned below.
Dashavatara Ganjifa: This game is played by three persons with 120 cards, mainly in Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, India. Although it is played by five persons in Bishnupur, West Bengal. There are 10 suits of 12 cards each in Dashavatara Ganjifa. These suits are the ten avatars of Vishnu. Given; the order of the suits (from lowest to highest) Matsya (fish), Kuchha (turtle), Varaha (boar), Narshinha (lion, or half-man, half-lion), Waman (Vishnu as a dwarf, round vessel symbols on cards), Parashurama (axes), Rama (bows and arrows), Krishna (round plates shown), Buddha (conch shells), Kalanki (swords).
Ashta Malla Ganjifa: The name Ashta Malla Ganjifa means ‘Eight Wrestlers’. This pack of cards depicts Krishna wrestling various demons.
Mysore Chad Ganjifa: Mysore was a centre for Ganjifa card making, encouraged by the ruler Krishna Raja in the mid-19th century. He devised a series of complex Ganjifa games, some requiring as many as 18 different suits, permanent trumps, and wild cards. Mysore Ganjifa was extensively patronized by the Mysore Royal Family – The Wodeyar Kings. Mysore Ganjifa Style was set to stories and shloka’s from the Hindu Purana’s. The Dashavatara Ganjifa which is a series based on the 10 different forms of the Hindu God Vishnu was the most popular of the 18 Ganjifa games and is the best known to this day.
Today’s Gem of Ganjifa: The Artist
Ganjifa is the lost art of hand-painting stories on playing cards. These stories are mostly about Hindu mythology and it is believed that these stories were painted on the cards for helping the generations to learn more about the Hindu mythology and culture of India. The artist paint these design using natural dyes and brush made from squirrel’s hair.
Shri Raghupathi Bhatta one of the pioneers of Mysooru Ganjifa- is trying hard to revive this heritage art of painting cards. It was his interest towards the traditional art and passion of combining uniqueness with traditional art that led him to explore further. It was in the early 1980’s that he chanced upon Ganjifa originals from Mysore palace. These originals were about 200 years old and he was attracted to the beauty of the painting. He was fascinated with the fact that these cards being eons old did not lost any of their original beauty. This led him to learn more about Ganjifa cards and make more of them. Chanting mantras, he makes his own colours with natural materials and draws and paints myths and stories based on his readings and discussions with various scholars. He has also painted on some non-religious themes. Credited with the revival of Mysore Ganjifa paintings, he has earned the title of “Ganjifa Raghupathi Bhat”. His work has been exhibited in shows across India and has also been featured internationally in exhibitions at London, Hague, Tokyo, Osaka, Ottawa, and Tunisia. Awards that have come his way include Kala Puraskar, Pariyaya Mutt, Udupi and Dr Raj Amogha Nagarika Award. His work is held in various collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Modern Twist to Ganjifa Art
Giving a modern twist to Ganjifa art is a ray of hope to revive this art and make people aware about the art. So the artists are trying hard by tying up with E-com portals and implementing the traditional art on modern decor products. Painting characters of Ganjifa cards on utility and decor products like coasters, cushion covers, mugs, wall paintings and many more have not only helped to give a traditional style to decor but also infused many such lost arts to the modern homes. While E-com are helping the artists with innovative ideas as per the demand of customers to meet the modern decor needs with an ethnic twist. They are promoting these artisans on a global platform and giving them opportunities to work more towards the art.