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Ganjifa Paintings – An Art Form Of Ancient India

Ganjifa is a game of cards, prominent in ancient India. The unique characteristics of the game is the spectacular paintings on the cards. The paintings are hand made on the cards usually circular in shape. In modern era the game has been transformed into an art form. The perishing art has been revived by an internationally acclaimed artist. His name is Ganjifa Raghupathi Bhatta, a dedicated practitioner of Ganjifa.

Eight Yogis, Number Eight of the Ishana Suit, Playing Card from a 32-Suit Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa Set LACMA M.73.55.5
Photo of ‘Eight Yogis, Number Eight of the Ishana Suit, Playing Card from a 32-Suit Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa Set LACMA M.73.55.5’ by Ashley Van Haeften under CC BY 2.0

History behind the paintings of Ganjifa

The paintings of Ganjifa is said to have originated about 1000 years back. Earlier the cards were well known as Kreeda Patra. The word is very popular in Sanskrit, meaning cards for playing games. The Mughals used the cards made of paper as an indoor game. It became very popular during the Mughal rules with the princely influence of the Mughal emperors. The game slowly earned the name of Ganjifa, a Persian word. The name signifies treasure, earned through win and loss stakes claimed by the players.

All the cards were painted by the artists with very fine painting brushes. The colours were made with dyes of minerals and vegetables. The cards were originally made with tortoise shell or ivory or even with precious metals like gold, silver and pearl. Once the game achieved a substantial and wide scale amount of importance, paper and sometimes sandalwood and cloth were used as a medium for the cards. In Mysore the game earned a lot pf popularity during the era of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar. He was a pioneer in upholding the traditions and cultures of ancient India.

Though the cards were invented with the purpose of amusement, yet they acted as a source of stories from religious scripts. In Mysore, a total of eighteen Ganjifa games were popular among the masses. Each of these games depicted the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana and stories from the Hindu vedic texts and scriptures. The most prominent is the Ganjifa names as Dashavatara. As the name implies it illustrates the 10 various avatars of God Vishnu.

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The fame of Ganjifa started to decline in the nineteenth century. The main reason for the downturn was the evolution of the cards by the Europeans, where King, Queen and Jack were the key attractions.

Raghupathi Bhatta – The Pioneer behind the revival of Ganjifa

Raghupathi Bhatta had learnt about the basics of Ganjifa while he was taking his lessons on paintings in the school of Chitrakala Parishat, based in Karnataka. He had been passionately practising the art form of Chitra Sutra. The form of painting demands utmost dedication and concentration to bring alive the significance embedded inside each of them. Raghupathi Bhatta was initially fascinated by the paintings of Ganjifa drawn on the walls of the Palace of Mysore. Being an ardent follower of the art and culture of ancient India and himself a skilled artist, he developed a strong inclination to revive the old art form. He was astonished by the intricate paintings and artistry behind the beautiful miniature drawings.

The earnest desire within him led to the restoration of the art of Ganjifa. He started preparing the dyes himself with vegetables and minerals. A huge number of paintings were re-established by him through the fine strokes of his brush. He was able to give re-birth to the almost extinct and forgotten ancient art form.

He could collect the original Ganjifa paintings which were almost 200 years old and was allured by their stupendous beauty and artistry. He was amazed to witness that after 200 years, the paintings were intact. In his attempt to revive Ganjifs, he not only created drawings of his own but also imparted training to artists and conducted several workshops to create awareness and interest.

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The Regeneration of Ganjifa

Shri Raghupathi Bhatta was phenomenal in reviving Ganjifa and was instrumental in showcasing his extraordinary works in a museum. The museum was founded by him in 1991 in Sri Rangapatna. But the museum was closed and he had to move to a small studio in Mysore. He never received the adequate amount of financial support, but then his indomitable spirit continued. Immense number of paintings were created within a span of 18 years.

Unfortunately he had to discontinue his work with a lot of hard feelings and disappointment. It was not only lack of finance, there was less audience and appreciation of his attempt to restore the ancient tradition. He had also displayed his paintings of Ganjifa in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. If you get a chance to visit the museum, you can find his exclusive works adorning the museum.

Ray of Hope

Few institutions and enthusiastic organizations are supporting the ardent desire of Shri Raghupathi Bhatta in reviving Ganjifa. They display the paintings, conduct seminars, and demonstrate the entire process of drawing Ganjifa cards. Workshops are also conducted to train interested artists in learning the authentic art form. The tales depicting the history of Ganjifa and the stories surrounding it are showcased and demonstrated in these events. It is obvious people won’t be playing the card games, but they can still appreciate the beauty and creativity of the paintings.

In order to respect the noble attempt of Shri Raghupathi Bhatta, we Indians can come forth and contribute our effort and energy in inculcating the old art form into the mainstream Modern era of India. The collective endeavour may lead to rejuvenation of Ganjifa and enliven the unfulfilled dreams of Shri Raghupathi Bhatta.

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Featured Photo of ‘Krishna Preparing to Decapitate King Kamsa, King of the Krishna Suit, Playing Card from a Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa Set LACMA M.73.55.3’ by Ashley Van Haeften under CC BY 2.0


Kuntala is an IT consultant specialising in Product sales. She has an ardent interest in travelling to various destinations across the world. She is a blogger writing articles on travel, food, health. She also building up a site of her own to share blogs of her travel experience.

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