It’s a winning hand from history that most haven’t even heard of. From India’s rich past and vibrant heritage comes the traditional card game of Ganjifa—a Persian game that has enjoyed popularity in the Indian subcontinent since the 16th century. It is believed that it likely reached India through the Mughals. “Preserving the art of Ganjifa is crucial for maintaining the cultural heritage of Sawantwadi and contributing to the broader cultural landscape of India,” says Shraddha Lakham Sawant Bhonsle, of Sawantwadi, the former capital of the Sawantwadi kingdom in the Konkan region of Maharashtra.
Typically circular in shape and vibrant in appearance, the remarkable intricacy and exquisite craftsmanship of these meticulously hand-painted cards leave one fascinated. The cards are characterised by extreme attention to detail and complex iconography. The game also contributed to popularising interesting mythological stories. Though these cards are still produced in some parts of India, they have been edged out of the mainstream by mass-produced Western playing cards since about the 19th century. With the efforts of mother and daughter-in-law duo of Shubhadadevi Khem Sawant Bhonsle and Shraddha, however, the art of Ganjifa making has been successfully revived from the verge of decline.
To fully appreciate the journey of and artistry behind this art form, one must first go back into history. “Ganjifa was introduced in Sawantwadi around the end of the 16th century by a group of Telangana Brahmins who migrated from Andhra Pradesh to hold discourses in Dharmashastra with Khem Sawant III, the then-ruler of Sawantwadi. Khem Sawant III was a patron of arts and music,” says Shradhha, adding, “This craft and the community of artisans flourished under the royal patronage of the rulers of Sawantwadi. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, various schools of this craft were started in the region.”
The Ganjifa card game was played across India during medieval times. Each region in the sub-continent had its version such as a twelve-suited version invented by Akbar; Ganjapa played in Odisha; the 10-suited Dashavatara Ganjifa; Naqsh Ganjifa; Mysore Chad Ganjifa; Navgraha Ganjifa, Ramayana Ganjapa; Kashmir, Gujarat and Rajasthan Ganjifa; Nepal Ganjifa etc.
“The speciality of Sawantwadi school lies in its Dashavatara Darchitri Ganjifa. The Dashavtara Ganjifa is based on the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. It is a set of 120 cards wherein there are 10 suits with 12 cards each. Each of these cards has a Vishnu avatar intricately painted in the centre. The colours typical to Sawantwadi are bright red, green, yellow, brown and black. Subtle expressions and movements of the poised figurines depicted in the cards wearing traditional Maharashtrian ‘nauvari’ style attire with minimal jewels characterise this school,” explains the 32-year-old Shraddha.
Tracing the journey of this revival, she explains, “Sawantwadi Lacquerwares was established by my grandparents-in-law Rajesaheb Lt. Col. Shivram Sawant Bhonsle and Rajmata Satvashiladevi Bhonsle in 1971. Once when Rajesaheb visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, he noticed a label reading Sawantwadi Cards. That’s when he learnt about the legacy of these cards. He collected more information about it. After returning to Sawantwadi, he enthusiastically began the revival journey of Ganjifa.”
The royal couple searched for the artists who would make such cards. It was quite challenging to find artists who knew the original art form and its process. The Bhonsles, themselves learnt the art from an 80-year-old artist Pundalekh Chittari who at that time would make two sets of Ganjifa every year. Rajmata took up the task of finding younger people from the villages and bringing them to work. “Her sole motive was to keep the legacy of the dying art alive,” states Shraddha. “We create hand-made Ganjifa-styled products across different categories, along with the playing cards in ornamental boxes, available for sale both online and offline. It includes various games, utility pieces, home decor accessories and so on. The price range begins at `250 and goes up to lakhs for furniture and other decor items,” says Shraddha, adding, “Today we have a team of 12 artisans.”
Eighty-year-old Mohan Kulkarni is the oldest Ganjifa artist in Sawantwadi who moved there from Belgaum in 1971. The history of Ganjifa just like other art forms has been dominated by male artists, with many women facing barriers to entry and recognition in the art world for much of history. However, over the years, there has been a significant shift, and more women have come forward as artists, challenging traditional gender roles and contributing to diverse and vibrant artistic expressions. Today, women artists are actively engaged in Ganjifa.
Sawantwadi has collaborated with cultural organizations, government bodies, and non-profit groups to support and promote Ganjifa preservation. “We shall always do our best to come up with unique ways to promote this art,” says Shraddha.