The Ganjifa Cards: Lost Art of the Mysore Royalty Getting Revived


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Ganjifa is an ancient Indian card game that was played among the post-Medieval kings and nobilities and was especially popularized during the Mughal period. The Ganjifa cards of Mysore have served as sources of artistic expressions. The kings were patrons of the artisans, and thus, the card game could flourish all across the country.

Origin of the Ganjifa Card Game

The original Indian card game known as Kreeda Patra was a popular royal amusement. However, with Persian and Arabic influences during the Mughal era, the Kreeda Patra cards of ancient India came to be known as Ganjifa cards. The word Ganjifa is derived from the Persian word ‘Ganj’, which refers to money and treasures. It was a common, leisurely practice for the aristocrats to involve stakes in the game.

The Ganjifa Cards
Image – Varna Nagari

The cards were primarily circular in shape, although rectangular ones have also been found. Other than the handmade papers which were recently discovered during the Mughal era, Ganjifa was designed on sandalwood and ivory pieces, etched with colours of silver and gold.

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The Mughal Ganjifa cards had paintings of acrobats, warriors, hunters, musicians, animals and birds. The colour and iconography changed as it spread to other regions and the themes were usually devotional. Each region developed its own version of the game. Some of the significant styles include the Sawantwadi Ganjifa from Maharashtra, Navadurga Ganjifa from Orissa, Kashmir Ganjifa and the Mysore Ganjifa which was greatly patronised by the Mysore royal family during their reign.

We explore the secluded world of the Mysore Ganjifa cards which has remained aloof from the mainstream.

Historical Significance of the Ganjifa Card Game

Image Courtesy – Prathama Srsti

The rise of the Mysore ‘Chada’ Ganjifa cards was brought about in the 19th century, under the rule of the then Maharaja of Mysore, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (1794-1868). The king had helped form the particular niche of Ganjifa to develop and propagate its art and game. He was the primary patron to help devise multiple variations for board and card games. The artists in his court designed the games under the king’s guidance.

The book titled ‘Sritattvanidhi’ is the monumental work of Maharaja Wadiyar III. The names of the card games devised by the Maharaja are mentioned in the last chapter, named ‘Kouthuka Nidhi’. The details, like the number of cards used, significance of each style of iconography, and colour combinations, and the corresponding ‘shlokas’, are all collected and organised.

Krishnaraja Wadiyar had formulated thirteen complex card games which required 36 to 60 numbers of cards. The themes of the art spanned across mythology, astronomy, astrology and the Puranas. Wadiyar incorporated themes inspired from Dashavatara, Navagraha, Pancha Pandava, Saamrajya and Naveena Ramayanam.

Ganjifa Cards in the modern age

Image Courtesy – Prathama Srsti

Artist Sudha Venkatesh of Mysore is a diligent follower of the traditional methods of creating and practicing the Ganjifa art form. Her father Ramnarasaiah, an artist and curator at the Mysore Palace, introduced her to the impeccable intricacies of the detailed art of Ganjifa. Venkatesh is of the opinion that the original Mysore style never made use of leather as a canvas for painting the deities. During the days of King Wadiyar, the artisans used stiff paper boards, which were prepared by pasting together sheets of paper with glue.

Renowned artisan and pioneer of Ganjifa, Shri Raghupathi Bhatta was inspired by the original Ganjifa cards of Mysore which were around 200 years old. He was fascinated by these ancient cards had survived through the years and retained their beauty. He began working on them in the early 1980s and developed his unique style of painting. Raghupathi Bhatta is an avid practitioner of the spiritual discipline of painting laid down in the Chitra Sutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana. In this practice, the painter endeavours to meditate on the subject of their painting until they are able to shape its form and colour. Thereby, the painter showcases their art in its fullest potential.

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Ganjifa Cards: the Making

Tourists and art enthusiasts, who purchase the cards as craft objects, cherish their aesthetic value. All Mysore Ganjifa paintings are painted with natural dyes and the fine, delicate details are etched with squirrel hair brushes. The Ganjifa artists grind and mix all colours by hand. The colours are derived from organic sources to produce the vegetable dyes, and thus, are rich in natural minerals.

Attempts to Revive the Ganjifa Card Game

In the recent years of more modern artistry, the name Ganjifa has lost its familiarity among the masses. However, due to the use of the traditional technique of hand-painting and the rich intricate details which embellish the cards, there have been initiatives to revive the art. Several artists and organisations alike have taken steps to revamp the art form. Bengaluru’s Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath is one such significant organisation. It has recently released a hard-bound book with almost 200-pages titled ‘Splendours of Ganjifa Art’. The book contains twelve detailed chapters of the history and traditional artistry of the Ganjifa art style, written by renowned Ganjifa artists, scholars and historians.

Ganjifa Shri Raghupathi Bhatta
Ganjifa Shri Raghupathi Bhatta – Courtesy TheBetterIndia

Ganjifa Shri Raghupati, born in Udupi district of Karnataka, settled in Mysore once he began his work of reviving the dying art form of Ganjifa. Today, he works on traditional paintings based on the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Upanishads. Most of his paintings today are specific works on the ancient Hindu scriptures.

Artist Subramanya Raju of the Chitragaar family from Mysore is another significant name who helped revive the Mysore school of paintings. He started a class in the Parishath in the genre in 1971.

What the future holds

The complexity of the game and the dominance of western printed 52-leaf playing cards later numbed the art, craft and the game. It would become easier to propagate if the general people and patrons of art gave more preference to originality, bought and used local art forms like the Ganjifa. Enthusiastic patrons who believe in this cause and have the conviction to support humble and talented local artists should step up their game.

Also Read – Ganjifa – A Royal Deck of Artestic Cards (Sawantwadi)

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