ॐ श्री गणाधिपतये नमः
Ganjifa is the name given to an ancient Indian card game. 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 Orrisa, Rajasthan and Gujrat Ganjifa , Kashmir Ganjifa, Nepal Ganjifa and the Mysooru Ganjifa which was greatly patronized by the Mysore Royal family during their reign.
Ganjifa, an ancient Indian card game, was historically believed to have been brought to India and popularised during the Moghul period.
The Persian word ‘Ganjifeh’ means playing cards and these were the foremost artistic creations used for playing cards, more so in princely States where kings patronised the art and the artists.
The cards were typically circular, although some rectangular decks have also been part of the artists’ imaginations.
This was a game popularly played by post-medieval kings and noblemen that spread to many regions in the country.
The colour and iconography changed with each region developing its own version of the game. Needle-fine lines that depicted the subject was one more aspect of the intensity of deftness embedded in the art form.
While it sounds unfortunate that the name Ganjifa itself faded into oblivion, the speciality that involved traditional hand-painting and microscopic detailing stirred many an artist and organisation to take up their revival and re-invent the form in the last few years for creating awareness.
One such institution is Bengaluru’s Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath (CKP) that released a nearly 200-page hard bound book ‘Splendours of Ganjifa Art’ sometime back.
The book contains 12 chapters on the nuances and history written by well-known Ganjifa artists, scholars and historians.
The Mysore Ganjifa
In the 19th century the Maharaja of Mysore, Mummudi Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (1794-1868) had a niche created for the game and the art of Ganjifa.
The patron of art and learning devised a number of variants for board and card games.
‘Kouthuka Nidhi’, the last Chapter of Sritatvanidhi, the monumental work of the Maharaja, has details of the card game of Mysore, known as the Mysore Chada Ganjifa.
It mentions the names of the card games devised by the Maharaja, number of cards used in each game, details of iconography, colour combinations and the corresponding Shloka.
The games were devised by the King and he had artists who would design them in his court under his guidance.
Krishnaraja Wadiyar has come out with 13 complex card games, requiring anything from 36 to 360 cards covering Hindu mythology, Puranas, astronomy and astrology.
Themes as Dashavatara, Navagraha, Pancha Pandava, Saamrajya and Naveena Ramayana are his creations. Thin fine line miniature paintings with decoration were mounted on card board.
Later some artists were also inspired by the Vijayanagar style.
Ganjifa cards were also known as ‘Kreeda Patras’ and were also made on sandalwood pieces and ivory, etched in enamelled silver and gold.
The complexity of the game and the dominance of western printed 52-leaf playing cards later silenced the art, craft and the game.
Variety in Ganjifa
There was the Sawantwadi Ganjifa from Maharashtra, Navadurga Ganjifa from Orrisa, Rajasthan and Gujarat, Kashmir Ganjifa, Nepal Ganjifa and the Mysuru Ganjifa.
While there are several artists in Mysore even today, in Raghunathapur near Puri in Orissa every house has a Ganjifa miniature artist.
Ganjifa originated in Persia in around the 15th Century. The antiquity of the game is as old as the human existence itself.
The origin of Ganjifa cards are however traced in Persia and China, while scholars have also traced them to Arabian countries.
In India the cards arrived through Sufi Saints during Mughal period, and gradually became popular amongst the kings and and kingdoms.
The Moghul GAnjifa cards had paintings of wrestlers, acrobats, swordsmen, soldiers, hunters, musicians, animals and birds.
As it spread to other regions, the colour and iconography too changed, and largely stuck to devotional themes.
Reviving the treasures
Renowned artist Raghupathi Bhat, who after being inspired on seeing some 200-year-old Ganjifa originals of Mysore began working on them in the early 1980s and developed his own unique style of Ganjifa cards.
Raghupathi who hails from Udupi and is settled in Mysore says these days they are sold as craft objects, as they are cherished for their aesthetic value, and there is less scope for innovation.
Moghul Ganjifa is played in some parts of Odisha with 96 cards in 8 suits of 12 cards each; each suit is distinctively coloured and comprises ten pip cards from 1 to 10 and two court cards, a vizier and a king.
This is the type of pack described by Ahli Shirazi. The suits featured are: slaves (Golam); crowns (Taj) swords (Samsir); ‘red’ gold coins (Zar-e sork); harps (Cang); bills of exchange (Barat); white gold coins (Zar-e safid); and cloth (Qomas ).
When referring to the king of a suit, he uses the term ‘Emir’, shortened to ‘Mir’ in the titles, but the term ‘Padishah’ in the text of the verses.
He describes a card with one suit symbol simply as a ‘one’, that is to say he does not the term ‘Ace’.
Dashavatara Ganjifa is played by three persons with 120 cards, mainly in Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, although it is played by five persons in Bishnupur, West Bengal.
The order of the suits (from lowest to highest) is: Matsya (fish), Kuchha (turtle), Varaha (boar), Narsingha (lion, or half-man, half-lion), Vamana (Vishnu as a dwarf, round vessel symbols on cards), Parashurama (axes), Rama (bows and arrows), Krishna (round plates shown), Buddha (conch shells), Kalanki (swords).
Rashi Ganjifa is a 12 suited Indian deck, with suit symbols derived from the 12 signs of the Zodiac. It appears to be limited to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ashta Malla Ganjifa
Ashta Malla Ganjifa, meaning ‘Eight Wrestlers’. Depicts Krishna wrestling various demons.
Naqsh Ganjifa For playing Naqsh, shorter Indian decks exist, with 48 cards. There is only one suit which is quadruplicated.
The suit symbols used for the run of 12 cards vary from one pack to the next. These decks are associated with gambling or play during the festival season in India.
Mysore Chad Ganjifa.
Mysore was a centre for Ganjifa card making, encouraged by the ruler Krishnaraja Wadiyar III 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.
A typical Chad suit had twelve numeral and six court cards, and packs had as many as 360 cards. They never achieved mass appeal and are quite obscure, possibly played only within his royal palace if at all.
The games are described in the work called the Sritattvanidhi, in the section ‘Kautuka nidhi’, and colour illustrations show designs for the cards.
The suits were horses, elephants, foot soldiers, forts, treasures, warriors in armour, boats, women, divinities, genii, wild beasts, and snakes. No specimens are known to have survived.
Very few such cards are known or exist. The examples found by Leo Aryeh Mayer are understood to have four suits: cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks.
Each suit has three court cards, the king (malik), the first vizir (na’ib malik), and the second vizir (na’ib thani). The court cards have no figurative imagery, but they feature calligraphed inscriptions and richly decorated backgrounds.
The term ‘Kanjifa’ appears in Arabic on the king of swords. They directly inspired the Latin-suited playing cards of Italy and Spain.
French suited Ganjifa.
Hybrids exist that combine Indian or Persian imagery with the hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs symbols of the French suit system