Being an art student I already had an immense amount of interest in knowing more and more about our traditional art forms and cultures that have changed through the centuries and modernised. Last summer I was browsing through the traditional arts of my state Maharashtra, and was curious to find out art forms other than Warli? Maybe a form of art that was rare or lost or just about anything that could satisfy my curiosity? As, I was also supposed to choose a topic for my upcoming academic year I began searching more out of both, curiosity and for the purpose of my research. That’s when I came upon the interesting ‘Ganjifa’ – a different game of cards from the royal palace which was practiced in Sawantwadi in Maharastra.
The name and game caught my attention and made me more curious as I love playing cards and have always enjoyed learning new tricks and games since childhood days. What was so different about Ganjifa? From the shape of cards to the rules of game and its entire history, just about everything was different. And so I decided to find out more about this unique card game and made up my mind to visit Sawantwadi.
Sawantwadi palace is situated right in front of the Moti Lake in the city of Sawantwadi. You can visit the palace anytime from morning 9 am to 6pm and have a glimpse of the royal beauty of the palace, their museum and lot more. The palace Darbar hall is today converted into a workplace for the artists to work. Before visiting the artists I had the honour to meet the queen of palace Her Highness Queen Shubda. I was overwhelmed and awestruck by the politeness and humbleness of the queen who guided me and gave me the following information.
The game of Ganjifa came to India with the Mughals from their country of Persia around 350 years ago. It was found in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Mysore and Maharastra, out of which the art is still preserved in Mysore and Maharastra only. Ganjifa is a royal court game of cards and is quite different from the game of cards we play today. The deck of cards today have 52 cards whereas, the Ganjifa deck has 96 or 106 cards. Also each card is completely hand-painted and has different designs on each one of them. Different sets are designed which have different number of cards in them. During the Mughal period the cards were made out of ivory, tortoise shell and so on. These cards for the royal court were known as Darbar Kalam and later when the local people began playing they were known as Bazaar Kalam. These cards were simple and made on cloth and cardboard that were affordable for the local people, but as time passed the arrival of British brought along the modern game of printed cards which is played today. As the cards were printed the cost was cheaper than the hand-painted ones. Also they brought along games like poker which interested the people and thus the game of ganjifa began to disappear day by day.
Around 1972 Her Highness Queen Satvashiladevi Bhosale and her husband his Highness Col. Shivram Sawant Bhosale took upon the initiative to preserve this art and they began the revival of Ganjifa. It was difficult to find artists who knew the original art form and its process. It was also a challenge to find people to get ready to work in the palace as due to minimum orders payment was an issue. Yet, the Queen took up the task to find people from the villages and bring them to work. The only motive she had was to keep the art alive more than the profit it might achieve. Due to her efforts we can see the art of Ganjifa, the royal game of playing cards which was a part of Mughal regime still alive in Sawantwadi in Maharastra. Both the King and Queen are no more today and Rajmata Satvashiladevi Bhosale who passed away last year worked to preserve the art till her very last breathe.
As I visited the palace I could see the current artistry of the art. Four artists, 2 male and 2 female artists were working in the Darbar hall of palace. Along with the playing cards they were also making other objects in Ganjifa style. Today the natural colours are replaced with poster colours, the cloth and royal shells or ivory replaced with simple paper but they continue to be packed in beautifully hand-painted wooden boxes in Ganjifa style. Different sets like Darchitri, Navgraha, Shivaji Maharaj, Mughal Ganjifa, Dashavtara are designed today. Today most of the orders placed are usually kept in for collection or framing as people are not familiar with the game. But the palace provides you a guide book along with the set of cards to know the rules of game.
Further I got the privilege to meet the Yuvraj of palace His Highness Lakham Raje Bhosale with whom I had a great conversation and got to see some of the different sets of Ganjifa. I also came to know about some of the plans and developments they wish to make in order to promote the art by increasing social activities on the digital media and so on.
Such is the Ganjifa game, a royal deck of cards whose beauty can be experienced even today in the Sawantwadi Palace of Maharashtra.