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Traditional Indian games recast as works of art

Resurrecting a fascinating project that brought together Indian and international artists for their take on ancient beloved games like Ganjifa (cards) and Moksha Patam (snakes and ladders), Chhaap: Foundation for Printmaking Trust has dipped into its archive to look ahead with renewed collaborative vigour

They are games most of us have played at some point of time in our lives, whether in our childhood or perhaps a more mature or serious version in later years, whether sitting at home with family and friends, or during travel, in the company of newly made friends — but very few of us are preoccupied by their fascinating origins, or the potential they have to be harnessed in incredibly artistic ways.


Take a deck of cards for instance — with early evidence of these sets found in Persia (modern Iran), Egypt, China and more, the debate on origin continues to run hot. But what is more factual and chronicled extensively in history is how these became popular in India, under the empire of the Mughals, circa the 16th century AD. In fact, the first reference to it reportedly kept in a diary of Emperor Babur, and it is believed that the sets back in the day were utterly lavish, with circular cards inlaid by gems and crafted in precious ivory and tortoiseshell. As the games caught on, some plebian versions also came to be made in wood, palm leaf and more — and today, the paper deck of cards is ubiquitous, as is the presence of it culturally in almost every country in the world.
This also leads to myriad ways of utilization, interpretations and unique regional adaptations — a concept that did not escape Kavita Shah of the Baroda-based Chhaap: Foundation for Printmaking Trust. As part of a non-profit cooperative with a mission to create and promote wider appreciation of original prints and print making techniques, it was over a decade ago that the epiphany struck — that a deck of playing cards could be fertile grounds for artists from all over the world to collaborate, interpret and contribute their own vision to a set system of motifs and numeration. Already, over the years, traditional hand-made Ganjifa cards have lost the market to Western-style printed cards.


Shah shared, “The idea actually came to me while reading a fascinating book about traditional or ancient Indian games. I then began to write to myriad artists about the concept, and those who enthusiastically agreed to participate hailed not just from across India but also from Japan, the US, Europe, South Africa and more. A total of 54 printmakers (one card each from a deck of 60) hailing from across the globe came together under this initiative with small miniature prints (7\” x 10\”) produced by each.”
The nature of the inspiration gave it malleability of both cultural and creative origin. Moreover, the artists dived into the task with vigour, and used a range of mediums between them, adding to the fascinating diverse conclusion of this project — from intaglio relief and lithography copper plate to chine colle, silkscreen, polymer etching, moku hanga (Japanese woodblock), block print and embossing, serigraph and much more.
For instance, Mario Teleri Biason from Italy rendered his two of diamonds in woodcut and relief print titled ‘Looking For’, using darkened red and black hues and an Expressionist vibe; Ina Kaur from Punjab and later the US brought to life her five of clubs, ‘Recreate’ with silkscreen and a retro feel, a psychedelic henna-ed hand making its presence felt in the centre of the frame.

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In the next phase, Chhaap carried forward the idea to the universally beloved game of snakes and ladders. Also reported to have originated in India as part of a family of dice board games like gyan chauper and pachisi (known in English as Ludo and Parcheesi), the game came to be known as Moksha Patam, say some historic versions, as it encompasses concepts like karma and moksha. Eventually, after it made its way to England in colonial times, it came to be known as Snakes and Ladders and became the worldwide classic it is today over the centuries. Fascinatingly, in the original board, several squares stand for virtues and vices, such as, Reliability (51), Generosity (57), Knowledge (76), or Vanity (44), Vulgarity (49), Lying (58), Drunkenness (62), Murder (73), and Lust (99), amongst others.
The layered approach to the uncertainty and the inevitability of life spurred a number of artists in Chhaap’s project to put their own unique and deep spin on each 15\” x 11\” board. Mediums used included serigraphy, lithography, linocut, woodcut, etching, archival print, photo transfer and more, while the boards came alive in thought-provoking manifestations. US-based Deborah Cornell’s archival print, for instance, evokes concepts of climate change and global restoration and neglect, placing the board against the backdrop of what appears to be a melting glacier and rising ocean, with every square imbued by a certain quality that contributes to issues the human race needs to pay attention to. Or, Karen Goodwin Legg from the UK used serigraphy to show teeming coils of snakes, wrought in an almost classical Oriental fashion, surrounding a single spare and diminutive ladder at the centre of the frame, against a vibrant and deep background of red.

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Similarly, the series was followed by a collaborative rendition of various artistic versions of chess, this time made in the form of small books — believed to have originated in northwest India around the early 7th century, Chatrang comes from chaturaṅga, or literally four divisions (of the military), infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively.
Come 2021, with the Covid-19 pandemic playing spoiler across sectors, the art world has also been experiencing a downswing, as galleries, museums and residencies remain impacted by strictures to avoid gatherings. This was when Chhaap resurrected this interesting series recently, and decided to recast it over social media this time round, taking to the video format and publishing clips about their artworks collected for both the Snakes and Ladders and Ganjifa projects.
At such a time, said Shah, “Unable to conduct our international residencies or workshops, our archives came alive to us, and a sense of celebration for what we have achieved in coordination with so much artistic talent from across the globe. We decided to look at and talk about what we have built together already on a positive note, and hope that we can all soon meet and connect for more such experiments.”


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