Ganjifas are small paintings (miniature in style) usually done on a round shape. These pieces were used in ancient times as playing cards and sometimes even as tarot cards.
The word “Ganj” means treasure. The art form started with the Mughals who brought in this art form to India when they came from central Asia. Once the art form was established the art spread throughout India either as “Mughal Ganjifa” or its later counterpart the Hindu “Dashavatara Ganjifa” where as you might guess the ten incarnations of Vishnu were represented.
The ancient art of Ganjifa as I already explained were usually circular in shape. The materials used to make the cards was usually paper pulp, leaves, fiber or sea shells after making the base with this material the cards were painted on with natural dyes after which lacquer was applied as a final coat.
I am still not entirely sure as to the intricacies of when these cards were used as playing cards and when they were used as tarot cards. But it was believed that by playing with these cards which had images of gods sins were forgiven. The Ganjifa paintings as tarot cards are something I remember once seeing where I saw painted the different sun signs … but I am not entirely sure of this as it might have been a more contemporary version of the art. Most of the Ganjifa paintings I have seen are usually divided into two parts the top part which has the image of the deity and the bottom half which has a symbol for the deity. Because of the use of natural dyes the paintings usually have larger amounts of hot colours ie(reds, yellow ocher) rather than cold colours. There are some Ganjifas which even used gold varak work (gold paper). There are many contemporary versions of the art form which use synthetic paints which are most uninteresting compared to the original paintings.
In Mysore the art form was practiced and is still practiced in small circles in (infact it is the one of the only places the art is practiced even today). These cards were used in Mysore in the time of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III as playing cards. But the sad reality is that the art is fast dying. In Mysore itself there are probably just about two or three artists involved with the art form. One of the most devoted being, Gurupad Bhatt, who has been helping the Indira Gandhi Foundation by having workshops which might bring the art form back to its glory.
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