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Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Can an ancient card game save the world from the Kali Yuga?

Artists Thukral and Tagra 'recalibrate' Ganjifa cards as a board game about conserving water

The game begins in the Kali Yuga—the current epoch and age of vice. Around the board are six players, each with a glass of water calibrated to 10 units. Every time players draw a bad karma card from the stack on the table, they have to knock back one to three units of the water. Each time, they draw a good karma card, they can stow it away to buy water later. If they run out of water and good karma to buy more units, they are out of the game.

Water is a finite resource in this game—there are only 24 units in the common reserve for all six players. Once the reservoir is empty, it’s game over for all the players. To complete the game, players must collaborate to conserve water through the 12 moves representing 12,000 years of the Kali Yuga.

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra have a come a long way since they developed the first iteration of this game, Walk of Life, for a show at the Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Mumbai City Museum in April-July.

That show, titled Games People Play, was part of the museum’s engaging traditions series. Curator Tasneem Zakaria Mehta had invited them to respond to anything in the museum collection and the artist duo, whose paintings and installations are often styled as Punjabi baroque, chose games including table tennis, wrestling and Ganjifa cards, which became the basis for Walk of Life.

Life cycle

The Decorative Arts Gallery is on the ground floor of the National Museum in New Delhi. Set among game boards like chess and chaupar are three 18th century Ganjifa cards (Ganjifa refers to a type of playing card, either circular or rectangular, once popular in Persia and India) from south India. Lions prance across the stunning red and white ivory cards behind the glass of the vitrine.

Next to them, a plain-looking placard describes a brief history of Ganjifa in Times New Roman: “The cards travelled from Persia, or modern-day Iran, to India in the 16th century; there’s a reference to them in Akbar’s biography, Ain-i-Akbari; the names of the eight suits in the Mughal set of 96 Ganjifa cards; and the game was typically played by four people with 24 cards each."

Doubtless, museums need to simplify and flatten histories to explain quickly and succinctly what is on show. This description is no different. It captures none of the drama of how the game evolved over five centuries. How, from being a pastime of royals, some of whom staked gold coins and pulled all-nighters to play the trick-taking card game, it evolved into popular versions played by three to five people from Bishnupur in West Bengal and Sawantwadi in Maharashtra to Raghurajpur in Odisha and Mysuru in Karnataka. Nor does it capture how the game petered out in the 20th century in all but a few centres.

In a chapter in Andrew Topsfield’s seminal book The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India, Jeff Hopewell, a member of the International Playing-Card Society, wrote: “Even today packs are being painted in Nirmal, Sawantwadi and Bishnupur, but primarily as curios rather than for use. Only in Orissa are cards still being made and used by local people for the game of ganjifa (or ganjapa as it is called there)."

Reverend Hopewell, who has amassed a respectable collection of Ganjifa cards over the years, says in an email: “In my experience it is much easier to collect Ganjifa in UK as they were brought back mainly as curiosities or were given as presentation pieces and were never used for play. In India they were used for playing card games and hence became damaged, cards were lost and eventually thrown away."

Games, of course, have a life cycle of their own. They are invented, they age and evolve and they finally die out when new technologies and pace of life present other forms of leisure. Some, like Ganjifa cards, have survived in a way because of their exquisite craftsmanship.

Artwork and antecedents

In the late 1930s, Rudolf von Leyden, a geologist, chanced upon a Ganjifa card set in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar. He fell in love with them and returned to India many times to research and collect the cards. He wrote definitive catalogues—in German and English—for Ganjifa card exhibitions at the Deutsches Spielkartenmuseum, or sports museum, in Germany in 1977 and the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK in 1982.

Von Leyden wrote in the English catalogue: “Among the instruments of games, playing cards have offered the greatest opportunity for artistic talent on the part of those who design and produce them. The study of their history is therefore the study of an important facet of popular art; not always of popular art, either, since alongside the cheap packs customarily used for play by ordinary people are the sumptuous ones made by skilled artists for the noble and the wealthy, of which, for obvious reasons, a disproportionate number survive."

Anamika Pathak, curator of the Decorative Arts Gallery, says the National Museum has at least one complete set of 96 Mughal Ganjifa cards. This is noteworthy, given that most private and museum collections preserved only one or two cards of a set for their artistic and historical value. Also, few collectors bothered much about the rules of play because what was important to them was the artwork and the antecedents of the particular card.

Recalibrating the game

How to play? That’s the question that got Thukral and Tagra hooked when they first rescued Ganjifa from behind a museum vitrine at BDL in Mumbai. “No one could tell me how to play the game," says Thukral. “Some said it was a three-player game, some said you had to have at least five people. Then, do you play with 96 cards (known as the Mughal set), 120 cards (the Dashavatara set) or 144 cards (the expanded Dashavatara set)?"

Thukral and Tagra hit the library, found an article by von Leyden in art history magazine Marg, looked up a Hindi book Thukral’s wife bought in Varanasi and finally ditched everything historians and anthropologists had learnt about the original rules of the card game—if indeed there was such a thing, since the motifs on the cards, the number of cards and the number of players changed depending who was playing the game and when.

“We don’t like the word ‘revive’; we wanted to ‘recalibrate’ the game," says Tagra. “Yep. Recalibrate is the word. It also has a technological ring to it."

For the first version of the game, Thukral and Tagra mounted 120 paintings inspired by Ganjifa cards on the BDL Museum’s walls. They switched from cards to a board game comprising stickers stuck on a wooden table. Players rolled the dice to travel through the four Puranic ages, from Satya Yuga to Kali Yuga, collecting good and bad karma stamps, boons and curses.

“Version 1 of the game fell a little flat at Khoj," says Thukral. The artists/game designers who met Thukral and Tagra at the residency were looking for more complexity. “So, we added layers."

Walk of Life II, for the Of Games III residency at the capital’s experimental art space Khoj Studios, has two parts. The first is closely related to the game the artist duo designed for BDL. Gamers roll the dice and traverse through the four ages in about two hours. There are more milestones, boons and curses in this game than in the first iteration. There is an element of choice at every stage; you can choose to send another player three paces forward or back and collect good or bad karma. Each milestone is marked by a drawing inspired by the 10 avatars of Vishnu in the Dashavtara Ganjifa card set. And, of course, there is the all new “drinking game" once players reach the Kali Yuga on the board.

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Art games

This is the third edition of the Of Games residency at Khoj, an experimental art space at Khirki village in New Delhi. Promona Sengupta, the curator of the residency and show, says the first year was focused on joining the global conversation on art games and looking at what they really are.

Art games came up 10-20 years ago, says Sengupta. Starting in the 1990s, big-budget games such as Metal Gear Solid launched with brilliant visuals that bordered on the artistic. Video games like Journey dissolved the distinction between art and games even further—the objective of the game is to walk through the stunning landscape in the game.

In the early 2000s, art exhibition spaces like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized shows like Game Show and 010101: Art in Technological Times, respectively. They included video games in their display, as a nod to the idea that contemporary art was spilling well beyond the pail of drawing-painting-sculpture.

This year, Sengupta chose “community" as the theme for the game residency. There are some stunning examples of issue-based art games like The Cat and The Coup about the nationalization of oil in Iran in the 1950s, Sengupta says.

“Our contemporary artists are already engaging with community issues. We decided to bring that into their games as well," she adds.

For Thukral and Tagra, the choice of subject was a no-brainer. “The scriptures say that the age of destruction (Kali Yuga) will come when water is sold in the markets and when the girl child is abused. All of that is happening today," says Tagra. “Our drinking game is about taking collective responsibility to conserve resources."

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.

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