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The History Of Playing Cards In India

Playing Card Games: A Popular Pastime

Did you know that earlier playing cards were a form of visual art? Though cards may have a bad rep due to their association with gambling, they were initially hand-painted and considered a form of art. Even today, many card collectors look for rare playing card sets that have artistic, historical, and cultural importance.

Card games have been a celebrated hobby and means of entertainment since ancient times. Let’s take a look at the history of playing cards in India, their evolution, and their artistic aspects.

The Journey From Kreeda Patram To Modern Playing Cards

Kreeda Patram

Although Ganjifa cards are widely believed to be India’s first card game, some scholars state that playing cards existed even before then. The game Kreeda Patram was popular in Indian courts and among royalty. These cards were made of cloth and contained themes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Kreeda Patram cards are a part of India’s oral tradition, and it is difficult to confirm exact timelines or find examples of cards from those times. 

The earliest written source that mentions these playing cards is from the 16th century, and while the rest is oral tradition, it might as well be considered pure speculation. However, cartoonist and card collector, Rudolf von Leyden believed that Chinese cards were present in India prior to 1300. He attributed the development of Indian playing cards to the games played by Mamluk immigrants from China.

Ganjifa

Ganjifa is derived from the Farsi word ‘ganjifeh’, which means ‘playing card’. The Mughal Emperor Babur introduced the Persian card game Ganjifa to India. Different variations of the game became extremely popular among royalty as well as commoners. Akbar introduced a version called ‘Ganjapa’ with 12 suits, which is still played in Orissa.

Playing cards
Navagunjara Ganjifa card
(image source: ignca.gov.in)

Ganjifa cards were hand-painted; each card was treated like a miniature painting on its own. The royals played with cards made from luxurious materials like ivory, mother-of-pearl, wood, etc. Common people used less expensive materials such as wood and palm leaves. Indian Ganjifa cards were circular in shape, unlike modern day European ones.

Playing cards
Playing cards
Dashavatara Ganjifa deck
(image source: ignca.gov.in)

Ganjifa playing cards had ten suits containing ten numeric cards and two court cards. Soldiers, elephants, ships, horses, demons, women, and other symbols can be found among the card suits. The decoration, style, and arrangement of the card sets were always unique, depending on the artists who designed them. The ‘Dashavatara’ deck, for example, featured designs based on ten different avatars of Lord Vishnu.

The Great Mogul Playing Cards

Playing cards
Great Mogul Playing card sets from 1778 to today (image source: wopc.co.uk)

A leading British cardmaker, Christopher Blanchard, created and trademarked the ‘Great Mogul’ playing cards. These cards were associated with high quality and were a reference to the Mughal rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. In 1742, Christopher Blanchard accused the cardmaker Thomas Hill of illegally using the Great Mogul trademark, and this court dispute eventually caused the design to enter the public domain.

Leading cardmakers such as Reynolds, Biermans, Continental Card Co., Willis, Hall and Son, Modiano, and John Müller began creating ‘Great Mogul’ cards as well. These cards were exported worldwide and were popular in Southeast Asian countries.

The Cartes Indiennes, 1890

In 1890, the leading cardmaker B.P. Grimaud manufactured a set of playing cards inspired by Indian royalty. These cards contained distinctly Indian imagery but in the European Art Nouveau style. The card designs (front and back) feature floral motifs and add a luxurious look to this set. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European companies used Indian imagery and designs to sell their products and make them feel expensive and foreign. Several versions of the Cartes Indiennes have been discovered, and this set is a prized collector’s item due to its rarity.

Raja Ravi Varma Playing Cards, 1906

Playing cards
Ravi Varma playing cards, historical set (image source: theheritagelab.in)
Playing cards
Ace of Spades with Ravi Varma’s trademark (image source: wopc.co.uk)

The famous Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma, along with calendar art and commercial illustrations, also designed sets of playing cards and printed them at the Raja Ravi Varma Lithographic press. Including the name of the cardmaker on the Ace of Spades was a popular practice during that time, and we can see Ravi Varma’s cards display this as well.

The press produced several card sets that contained either historical or religious motifs. These cards also displayed ‘Swadeshi’ themes.

Dilkhus cards, 1922

Dilkhus playing cards (image source: wopc.co.uk)

Van Genechten was one of the most renowned cardmakers in Belgium. In 1922, they manufactured a set of cards for Calcutta’s Kamala Soap Factory. These cards depicted portraits of Indian royalty as well as decorative motifs. Van Genechten used primary colours to give the Dilkhus cards a bold look, reminiscent of the bright colours used in Indian traditional art.

Children’s Alphabet Cards by the Chitrashala Press, 1940

Playing cards
Chitrashala playing cards (image source: wopc.co.uk)

The Chitrashala Press of Pune published simple yet traditional playing cards that contained alphabets and illustrations. They printed three editions of this card set: two in Marathi and one in Urdu. While most cards fulfil the purpose of entertainment, these cards were catered towards children and were educational as well.

Air India Playing Cards, 1980

Playing cards
Air India playing cards by Playwell Playing Card Co (image source: wopc.co.uk)

A set of cards used to be part of the complimentary in-flight items. The Air India cards were produced for this reason by the Playwell Playing Card Company. These cards are now collector’s items. Their intense colour scheme of black, red, and green gives them a vibrant appearance.

Playing Cards As A Study Of Art And Society

Playing cards
Cartes Indiennes (image source: unitedcardists.com)
Playing cards
Orient The Queen of Cards by Subho Tagore (image source: wopc.co.uk)

Card games are an ancient form of entertainment that continues to exist in modern times. The designs of playing cards reflect popular culture as well as the traditions of a region. For art enthusiasts, artwork can help them understand the history of a region, its art styles, schools of thought, and trends. Similarly, card collectors and enthusiasts collect ‘rare’ cards and document them as important pieces of art history. For example, the Cartes Indiennes playing cards reflect the nature of European commercialization and mass production. Their designs reflect the European view of Indian royal society.

Hand-painting Ganjifa cards (image source: konkankatta.in)

Art is a reflection of society, and playing cards are an important artistic and cultural aspect of it. The ancient traditional art form of Ganjifa paved the way for the future of Indian playing cards. A small group of artists and card collectors keep this beautiful art form alive today.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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