From a coastal town in Maharashtra to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Ganjifa playing cards are seeing a royal revival

While the hallowed halls of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London often exhibit artworks and artefacts from India, a recent exhibition dug deeper into the annals of medieval Indian history. Showcasing an art form that is an evocative glimpse of the cultural tapestry of medieval India, the iconic museum trained the spotlight on Ganjifa playing cards, each deck comprising exquisitely handpainted leather or starched cotton circles that were precursors to today’s playing cards and are mentioned in historical records beginning around 1300 AD. A similar exhibition was also held at the Deutsches Spielkartenmuseum in Germany. What might come as a surprise, however, is that Ganjifa cards are still being made today. Where, you ask? In Sawantwadi, a sleepy little coastal town in Maharashtra.

Located in the district of Sindhudurg, Sawantwadi’s history features Chhatrapati Shivaji and his warrior clan. The erstwhile royal family, the Bhonsles, resides at the modest palace here – and among them, Rajmata Satvashila Devi Bhonsle is reviving the art of painting Ganjifa cards. The great-granddaughter of the last Maharaja of Baroda, she was married to Shivaram Sawant Bhonsle, the heir-apparent of Sawantwadi, at the age of 16 in 1951. A reclusive young woman with a deep love and appreciation for nature and art, she nurtured her artistic skills over the years, finding inspiration in the surrounding forests and painting tigers, birds and butterflies.

On a trip to Sawantwadi while the royal family was residing in Belgaum, she bought a packet of Ganjifa cards from Panduranga Chitare, an 82-year-old venerated artist. “Before India’s Independence, royal families across India looked after the art and culture of their states. After 1947, however, many royal families drifted apart and thus, patronage for the art and the artists began to dwindle,” the Rajmata says. “When we decided to revive the art of Ganjifa, we had to begin from scratch,” she adds, recalling how Chitare was invited to come and live at the palace, where the royal couple would find him students and look after all his needs, provided he agreed to pass on his knowledge and skill to the younger generation. “We paid Chitare while the state government paid stipends to the students. In 1973, we were finally able to set up Sawantwadi Laquerwares,” she shares. At present, nine artists are employed with them.

Besides Sawantwadi, efforts to preserve and promote Ganjifa are also being carried out elsewhere in the country. Noted collector Kishor N Gordhandas – known to have the largest collection of Ganjifa cards in India – writes on his website, “Each individual [Ganjifa] card [is] a work of art. Groups of chitrakaars, painters and craftsmen in numerous centres across India have taken up the task of reviving Ganjifa as an art form and have been producing cards in diverse styles.”

“Traditionally, each individual Ganjifa card was handmade and hand-painted by the finest artists, and the number of cards as well as suits in each deck have varied through the ages. While the Dashavatara Ganjifa has 10 suits, the Mughal Ganjifa has eight suits with 12 cards each and the Naqsh Ganjifa from Bishnupur, Odisha, has 48 cards that are still in use in some parts of the country. The material used to make the cards also varies – cards for the wealthy would be made from ivory, mother-of-pearl, lac wafers or tortoise shell, while cards for the common populace would be made from either leather, paper, palm leaves, fish scales or papier mâché,” explains Khem Bhonsle, Satvashila Devi’s son.

What is the market like for these cards today? The Rajmata affirms that there is a lot of demand for them — enough for the artisans to find it difficult to cope with at times. Customers hail from the UK, the US and some European countries too. Satvashila Devi’s vision has now been taken on by her grandson, Lakhan Bhonsle, who is working tirelessly to promote Ganjifa cards and showcase the art form to the world.

– Compiled by Shyamola Khanna

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