Making Ganjifa- World’s oldest playing cards the order of the Day

As card games are the order of the festival in Indian households especially during Diwali season, Artist Banamalli Mohapatra has revived the 16th century hand-painted Ganjfa cards with cotton saris, squirrel hair brushes and crushed stone colours.

Athrangi ganjifa, a set of 96 cards hand-painted by Banamalli, cast the light on ganjifa embracing folklore and mythology in its expressions. Each card is made through a long and exacting process and makes use of old cotton saris or rags that are painted with squirrel hair brushes in crushed stone colours.

Drawn with freestyle technique, each of the eight suits is embellished by stylised birds drawn in pattachitra style and printed with gold edging.  the birds flit across the card in random order. Each suit depicts a function of the royal court, such as the crown, the treasury, the armoury, the mint and so on.

There were times when these Persian origin ganjifa cards were adorned with paintings of wrestlers, acrobats, swordsmen, musicians, animals and birds. Now the iconography mainly draws inspiration from mythology, history and nature.

The role Odisha artisans is indispensable in making the Ganjifa cards popular in different forms — the most popular being the Dashavtar ganjifa, others include the Mughal ganjifa, rashi ganjifa and Ramayan ganjifa. They started hand-painting them in pattachitra style, mostly with mythological figures.

It’s hard to imagine that the humble deck of cards was once a luxury only the aristocracy could afford. These Ganjifa cards actually stand to rival modern games such as poker and teen Patti; the three-card version popular in India. Each suit consists of one king, one wazir, and 10 numbered cards. After shuffling, the cards are placed face down on a white cloth, then divided equally among the players.

Cover image by Shubh Yatra

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