In pursuit of decking up dying cards

(From left) Pramod Das, Prashant Maharana, Gangadhar Maharana and Banamali Mohapatra (Photo | Shamim Qureshy)

In the verandah of a craft centre in the quaint Raghurajpur village of Odisha, 70-year-old Banamali Mohapatra sits hunched on the floor applying thin strips of colour on a small black circular disc. His fingers do not quiver while drawing the red outline of Lord Vishnu with a fine brush on the disc. In the next five days, he will paint 95 such pieces, which will showcase the ayudha (weapons) and vahana (a mythical vehicle) of Dasaavataar (10 incarnations) of Lord Vishnu. A block of these 96 discs with miniature paintings will make a Ganjapa playing card set, which is today a dying craft. Mohapatra is among the four artisans in the village who have kept the ancient craft alive in the village, which is famed for its Pattachitra. Helping him in the initiative are Gangadhar Maharana, 54, Pramod Das, 35 and Prashant Maharana, 27, all from the village.
“Ganjapa is derived from the Persian word ‘ganjife’, and the tradition of playing these cards was first mentioned in the memoirs of Mughal emperor Babur in 1527AD,” says Mohapatra, the senior-most Ganjapa artist in Raghurajpur.
The artist, who won the National Award for Outstanding Craftsperson instituted by the Ministry of Textiles for his contribution towards promoting and propagating Ganjapa cards, has been making them for six decades. He has added mythological themes to them, such as Saptamatruka, Naba Durga, Asta Digapala and Naba Gruha.
Like Mohapatra, Gangadhar Maharana is also a National Award recipient. He says though the complex game of Ganjapa is no longer played in the village, they are making efforts to keep the craft alive. “Ganjapa cards resemble Pattachitra but are not as detailed and artistic as the paintings,” says Maharana. The artists admit that Ganjapa is staring at a bleak future as youngsters in the village are not interested in making them or playing with them because of their complex nature.
Pramod Das and Prashant Maharana are exceptions. While Das has learnt the craft from his 83-year-old father Jaya Maharana, Prashant learnt the art under Mohapatra.
They started their career with Pattachitra, but soon shifted to Ganjapa, considering its rarity. “There are a few connoisseurs of handicrafts in India who understand the importance of Ganjapa, and this is where the business comes from,” says Das. A Ganjapa card set sells for at least `2,000, depending on the number of cards and artistry.
Each pack of cards is of a different colour and is named as per the number of colours in a set. The packs are called Atha Rangi (eight colours), Dasa Rangi (10 colours), Bara Rangi (12 colours), Chauda Rangi (14 colours), Shola Rangi (16 colours) and so on.
The artists make the canvas and colours. The glue is prepared from tamarind seeds and is applied on a piece of hard paper covered with thin strips of cloth on both sides. “The canvas is left to dry and then cut in round shapes. A layer of lime mixture is pasted on these circles and painted with a base colour, such as black or white. Then, natural colours are used to draw the paintings,” says Das. The colours, he says, are extracted from flowers, seeds, dry leaves and colourful stones.
Although a lengthy process, the artists say they would never give up on this tangible heritage. All they wish for is government’s intervention to take the craft forward.

The glue is prepared from tamarind seeds and is applied on a piece of hard paper covered with thin strips of cloth on both sides. The canvas is left to dry and then cut in round shapes. A layer of lime mixture is pasted on these circles and painted with a base colour, such as black or white. Then, natural colours are used to draw the paintings

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