What are the fanciest playing cards? Ganjifa! Traditional artistry in South Asia is replete with its local currents and workmanship. And this very aspect mirrors in the regional tradition at Sawantwadi. This tiny town tucked away in Sahyadri hills along the West coast of India boasts of a tradition since the medieval times.
It was a travel back in time as I walked into the room with wooden furniture, walls with peeling color and dexterous artists bent over small pieces of handmade paper, turning into “ganjifa” cards.
I was at the Sawantwadi palace to get a taste of traditional workshop setting patronized by the local rulers. In modern times, Sawantwadi is not a princely state as such, but continues to epithet of “raja” for the descendents of the Bhonsale royal family. The former Maharani has raised the traditional art of ganjifa cards to the status of special royal art. This tradition continues to thrive among select few royal workshops.
The circular cards with ornate designs was once a deck of playing cards. These are available in at least 13 different sets. Popular themes from Hindu religious lore or symbolic art depicting individuals from the royal army continue to be represented on the Ganjifa sets.
I was intrigued to learn how this tradition bleeds into the local history of art and the repertoire of royal patronage. The interconnectedness of the art on Ganjifa card sets connects the three corners of the subcontinent: Orissa, Tanjavur and Savantwadi (roughly the East, south and the west of the country).
The iconography on Ganjifa cards also connects the narrative of represented forms. “Dashavatar” or the ten forms of Vishnu, for instance- are among the popular decorations on the Ganjifa cards. I still need to explore further into this local tradition and the nomenclature: Ganjifa.