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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The National Game of India

Author: Dr. Wayne Saunders

I’m told you can still buy cloth boards and wooden pieces in local bazaars for what has been called the “national game of India.” What you can’t buy, apparently, is popularity for a game that, once played by emperors and commoners alike, is now found mainly in rural villages, antique shops, and big books on the paraphernalia of India Past.

Irving Finkel’s recent anthropological survey of board games in India reveals plenty of localized names for the game and its family of variants, though the most popular is chaupar, referring to the “four arms,” or extensions, of spaces that make up the cross-shaped track of the board. We Anglo-Americans call the same family pachisi, Hindi for “twenty-five,” referring to the largest throw one can make from the cowry shells that often serve as its dice. Indians who don’t remember the glory of the game may know its British successor, ludo (from the Latin for play), which has supplanted the original among the young as if it had never existed. When I asked my friend Kishor Gordhandas in Mumbai to find me a commercially-produced version of chaupar, he sent me a copy of American Parcheesi.

Why should we care? Well, I care, and I’m not even Indian. I don’t like the fact that all the places on earth are starting to look like each other. I want for India what is India’s, what came from its people however many centuries ago. And I want to preserve a game that can stand tall among the best we have today—anywhere. (And which is certainly better than ludo.)

Nothing is simple, however. Although chaupar came to maturity in India, it may have sprouted from seeds planted in other places. The idea of (1) racing a team of pieces along a track, (2) landing on opponents’ pieces to send them back, (3) obtaining temporary protection for one’s pieces by doubling them up, and (4) gaining advantages from spaces with special markings, were common to a number of games played in the Near East over five thousand years ago.

The Egyptian game of senet, in fact, may have been the ancestor of the backgammon family of games, which share the first three characteristics mentioned above. And chaupar may have derived from a form of backgammon. It has been called the “backgammon of India,” and some have proposed that its board is really two backgammon boards laid across each other to allow four to play. Both games (if we consider the chaupar varieties that employ two or three long dice) depend on throws of dice that must be taken as discrete clusters of pips: a 1 and a 5 can’t be reassembled into a 2 and a 4. Eighth-century statues at Ellora that were once believed to show Shiva and his consort Parvati playing chaupar are now thought to show them playing backgammon. Indian backgammon was once filled with the symbols of Brahmanic ritual, but succumbed in the tenth and eleventh centuries to the more devotional bhakti movements—and chaupar.

But if there was a time when India did not have chaupar, it afterwards compensated by creating a mythical past for it. Just as Indians came mistakenly to believe the Ellora statues were of chaupar—the rules to a Rabari set I recently acquired from Kachch in Gujarat perpetuate the idea—so they were also told in picture and verse that the famous high-stakes dice game in the Mahabharata was really chaupar. Wrong again. And what of the popular story that Emperor Akbar in the late 1500s played the game with slave girls as pieces, on a huge courtyard board that can still be seen in Fatehpur Sikri? Well, the board certainly exists; but it was probably added long after Akbar was gone, and possibly as an ornament to cover up a drainage system!

Chaupar doesn’t need gods and emperors to make it into a national game: it earned the title by being cherished and played for possibly a thousand years or more, and at every level of society. British ludo, German Mensch ärgere Dich nicht, and American Parcheesi, all very popular in their home countries, are played mainly as “family games,” with children almost always among the players. Their parent game chaupar, however, has almost always been portrayed in art and literature as an adult’s game, whether among members of a harem, or in a group of male gamblers, or between a husband and his bride, or even—a thousand years after the Ellora statues—honoring Shiva and Parvati. Children are satisfied with a game that has a good story, like snakes and ladders, whereas adults need strategic depth (or else luck and rupees) to stay interested. Thus early devotees found beauty and maturity in chaupar. When the Mughals picked it up (for Akbar loved the game and experimented with it endlessly), it was because they saw, especially in the three-dice variants, a challenge of strategy and character. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was discovered among all the classes as an outlet for intelligence and risk and the entrepreneurial spirit. The game has grown up with India.

And I? I count all these approaches tenable, as I watch my nephew, his last piece fifty-five spaces from home, throw his cowries five mouths up twice in a row, each time for a score of twenty-five plus a bonus of one and an extra throw, then three mouths up for a score of three and the game. There may be no justice in life, but as long as there is such drama as this, I shall honor a country that can invent it and respect a nation that can remember.

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Note: Dr. Wayne Saunders wrote this article for us (Ramsons Kala Pratishtana) in 2008. We were supposed to carry it in our newsletter which never materialised. I am posting this article here because I do not want this article to go waste.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Old games, new tricks

Following article appeared in the 'Spectrum' of Deccan Herald. Ramsons Kala Pratishtana's passion project - Kreedaa Kaushalya - has been featured in it. Please have a look.

Bindu Gopal Rao, Aug 04, 2015,
Play on
games for your mind Kids playing a traditional game PHOTO courtesy: Ramsons kala prathishtana, mysuru

How do you think people in the olden days spent their free time? With no access to television, internet and modern forms of entertainment, has it ever crossed your mind how your parents, grandparents and forefathers filled their days and months? Well, it was this same question that R G Singh, secretary, Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, Mysuru had which led him to the answer – board games! 

Karnataka is rich in traditional board games. Be it chaukabara, navakankari (nine men’s morri), adu huli (goats & tigers), paramapada (snakes & ladders), pretwa, ashtapada, chaduranga (four-handed chess), pagade or pachisi, shara vyooha, hasu mattu chirate (cows and leopards), anay kattu (men & elephant), aligulimane or pallanguli, nakshatra aata, games are an integral part of our heritage. 

Certain games even find their presence in the age-old temples of the State. For 
instance, the Chennakesava Temple in Belur has board games inscribed on its floors. Even the Mahalakshmi Temple in Kolhapur and other temples of Varanasi have similar inscriptions. This certainly proves the fact that such games were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the olden days. 

The book, The Art of Play Board and Card Games of India, edited by Andrew Topsfield, gives you an initial survey of the great traditional games of India. According to the book, “It is not commonly known that several of the world’s most popular board games were conceived in the Indian subcontinent, including ludo, snakes & ladders and not to forget chess, the greatest and most universal board game of all.” 

In order to revive such traditional games, R G Singh, Raghu Dharmendra and C R Dileep Kumar Gowda started their research that covered the entire country, with special emphasis on South India and came across 35 such games. Naturally, reviving the traditional games was far from easy. Visiting museums to look at the prototype of these games, the team found out that most pieces were used by the royalty and were like works of art. “Being in the handicraft business for the last 45 years, we were aware of the craft clusters in India and identified about 35 of them and started recreating around 20,” says Singh. 

Nuances of games
Raghu Dharmendra, curator and designer, adds, “We have learnt how to play these board games by playing with local village folk. Sometimes, the games would be etched on the granite floor slabs in old temples and public spaces like riverside mantapas, parapet under the peepal tree, etc.” In the process, they have come across several variations in rules and names of these games and they also have fun rituals such as when a person loses, he has to run around singing a doggerel or have to dance, and the like. Once the team completely learns the nuances of playing a particular board game, it gives its pattern to the artisans, who reproduce it in the form of a beautiful artefact either in kalamkari or batik or silk embroidery or kinhala chowki etc. The prototype is analysed for feasibility to cut the cost and make the product more affordable. Further, other gaming accessories like play counters (pawns) and dice are also created. These are packed with playing instructions and sent out to the sales counters.

Likewise, Kavade – a niche toy hive in Bengaluru, takes pride in operating alongside a world dominated by digital media. Promoting an array of Indian traditional games and toys, Kavade strives to revive value-rich games that are strongly entrenched in Indian culture and tradition. Sreeranjini G S, founder, Kavade says, “The games and toys offered by Kavade are environment-friendly and give a chance to learn about Indian culture and history, and most importantly, are suitable for all ages.”

Strategies & more
With traditional board games being revived, people’s interest is also getting piqued. With many of them interested to do something different, people are looking towards such interesting games. “Many people buy these pieces as they are great conversation starters. Also, we have ­educational games like mankala, which is great in mental maths and akin to abacus. Playing these games is a great exercise for the brain. For instance, in games like pagade and chaukabara, you need to think of four things simultaneously while playing, including counting the number of points on the dice, the direction in which you want to move your pawn, how you can reach the safe zone and ensure you are not attacked by the opponent’s pawn. In fact, when four people play the game together, there is a lot of strategising required to keep moving ahead,” explains Singh.

Old is gold and these traditional games  can certainly stimulate your mind in more ways than one. And if you are visiting your grandparents, it’s the perfect opportunity to ask them about such interesting games as you are guaranteed to get many memorable stories. So, what are you waiting for? Start playing!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Board Game in a Comic Book

Leo and Capri are two humanoid parrots, who are the lead characters of a new comic book series conceptualized by Mysore Lakshman Amarnath, a dreamer and artist.

So you have  brightly colored panels that tell of the adventures of Leo and Capri  which always ends in one of the parrots encouraging the other by telling a moral story. Something like Aesop’s Fables or the older Panchatrantra.

The comic serves a twofold purpose. First we have the entertaining tale of the misadventures of two parrots and how they learn from the fables to overcome their the pitfalls of life.

For instance in the one called, ‘Leo and Capri : The Cunning Trilogy’, three human weaknesses: greed, ingratitude and trickery, are the focus  while Leo and Capri in narrating these tales use them as object lessons that help one to face the slings and arrows of fickle fortune.

Then when one has come to the end of the book, Eureka! Here is a classic board game that beckons the entire family to hunker down and get down to the game of say, 'Aadu Huli Ata’  or Goats and Tigers.

Amarnath justifies the inclusion of a traditional board game saying that it not only firms the bonding of the family but also in creating a chess grandmaster’s brain in the player. He develops the ability of thinking several moves ahead, strategy and teamwork since in this particular game the goats and the tigers have to move with synchronicity to achieve their ends.

The traditional board games have been sourced from R.G. Singh of Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, Mysuru,  who conduct traditional board game workshops in various parts of the State  apart from hosting an annual exhibition of board games.

Each  comic book will contain a board game along with clear and precise step-by-step explanations on how to play the game. The game diagram itself is on a large format  so that the comic book itself can be used as a playing board.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Traditional board games workshop at Davanagere

A resurrection of interest in traditional board games was clearly evident at the Summer Camp organised by the Wiz Kids Academy of Davanagere. On invitation by Wiz Kids Academy, volunteers of Ramsons Kala Pratishtana (RKP)  taught about 12 traditional board games in a special three-day workshop from the afternoon of April 11 to the morning of April 14, 2015.

The thirty odd boys and girls had a rollicking time of their lives when they learnt board games from RKP Resource Persons comprising of R.G. Singh, Raghu Dharmendra, Dr. Dileep Kumar Gowda C.R. and artist Manish Verma.
Introductory talk by R.G. Singh and Dr. Dileep Kumar Gowda

The traditional board games like  Adu Huli Ata, Chaduranga, Aligulimane, Anay Kattu, Pagade, 16 Sepoys, Dash-guti  and several others were introduced to the wide-eyed kids many of whom were more at home with a hand-held mobile game than with a game whose playing surface was an intricate piece of embroidered cloth, colorful markers and wooden dice.
Two girls were interested to learn the complex hunt game - Anay Kattu

The rules of each game were explained patiently by RKP resource-persons. Many trial games were played to make sure the kids understood  the rules. Once the rules were grasped then it was a joyful free-for-all as small groups formed and reforms  before the games began.
Tiny tots engrossed in play

Perhaps it was the thin veneer of civilization of the kids that prevented major mayhem as they rolled dice, moved pawns, while others with some nifty strategy moved the sheep from the clutches of the tiger. Or Aligulimane where some kids seemed to show an extraordinary dexterity and mathematical ability.
Red guy is losing for sure in the game of Sixteen Sepoys

Hours later, the kids tired from the all the excitement of playing several games whose history goes back to an ancient past, finally called it a day, the minds were still on the game and all they could talk of was how they could have beaten their opponent if only they had only worked out one more permutation and combination then they would have had all three tigers pinned by a phalanx of goats.
Raghu Dharmendra and Dr. Dileep Kumar teaching the game of Four Handed Chaduranga

It was heartening to note that many of the kids claimed vociferously, as only kids will do, that they would play all the games that they had learnt here at the workshop in their homes  and that they would teach their parents and other siblings.  

Monday, August 11, 2014

Article in Business Line

We were featured in the 'BLink' of The Hindu's Business Line on 9 Aug 2014. The following well written article by Ms. Rashmi Pratap can be read online here as well.
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Board games BC

Emperors sat engrossed in front of them, as did commoners, and now a handful of people are attempting to revive the centuries-old board games of India
The Chennakesava temple in Belur, Karnataka, is not just an architectural marvel on the banks of the Yagachi river, it is also a repository of more than 20 board games, played possibly by priests as well as temple caretakers in the 12th century and until much later. Similarly, at the Mahalakshmi temple in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, the grid of the game Sixteen Sepoys is clearly visible on a stone plinth. And in Varanasi, the gateway to salvation, board games can be found etched into the platforms lining the banks of the Ganga, as also inside numerous temples. 
From Pallanghuzi to Pachisi and Chaupar to Chaduranga, a range of astonishingly inventive games were played by emperors and commoners alike in the centuries gone by.
Yesterday once more: Traditional board games researchers RG Singh and Dileep Kumar of Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, Mysore, play a game of Dash-guti etched on a platform at Sheetla Ghat in Varanasi. Pic: Raghu Dharmendra
Today, a handful of people are attempting to revive these traditional board games of India. Whether they are doing it as a non-profit initiative or as a commercial venture, their motivation is the same — to familiarise the internet generation with these games and preserve this precious legacy.
“We have documented ‘board’ games inscribed on the floors of over 100 temples, mostly in Karnataka,” says RG Singh, honorary secretary at Mysore’s Ramsons Kala Pratishtana (RKP) Trust, whose hunt for traditional games has taken him from Orissa to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, other than the cave temples of Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal in his home State.
Long before TV or movies were even dreamt of, how did our forefathers spend their free time? After mulling over the question for years, in 2000, Singh, together with Dileep Kumar and Raghu Dharmendra of RKP, began researching in earnest. “One of the things they did was play ‘board’ games, inscribed in temples, houses... The next question was, ‘Can we revive them?’” says Singh.
While curiosity was the germ of the idea for the RKP trio, it was the close bond with their grandparents that led Dr Ramya Surapaneni of Spardha Games and journalist Vinita Sidhartha of Kreeda Games to introduce board games like Puli-Meka (Tiger and Goat), Mancala and Dahdi (Nine Men’s Morris) to the masses.
Games grandparents play
“My grandparents used to babysit my children and, despite the 80-year age gap, my kids enjoyed spending time with them. They played games that my grandparents played when they were growing up,” recalls Sidhartha. Around 2002, when she became tired of content writing, Sidhartha decided to make these games for friends and family. “I also made some pieces for sale and we sold out in the first week. That’s how Kreeda Games was born.”
For dentist Surapaneni — who specialises in smile designing, and shuttles between Hyderabad and Indore for work — traditional games held values for life. “Winning and losing, following rules, learning to cope with loss and being a sport are traits that video games and computers can’t teach children,” she says.
She used to visit her grandparents regularly in Nimmakuru, Andhra Pradesh. “We bonded over board games. I also encouraged my cousins to visit them during the holidays. That’s when I realised that traditional games were a great way of inculcating values apart from strengthening family ties,” she says. She founded Spardha Games in February, and has since launched four games.
Both Sidhartha and Surapaneni used their savings and help from family to fund their ventures. Today, Kreeda sells anywhere from 500 to 1,000 games every month, priced between ₹100 and ₹800. Spardha’s prices range from ₹800 to ₹25,000.
Road to revival
Each of these revivalists had to surmount several challenges along the way. “You need pawns and dice, the manufacturing process has to be understood and artisans have to be roped in to create the games,” says Singh. Given his experience at Ramsons, an established company in the handicrafts sectors, Singh was confident the games could be made by artisans. But putting it all together took almost five years.

Pray, play: The Chennakesava temple at Somanathapura, in Mysore district, has carvings of the Mancala board game; (right) the Adu Huli , or Goats and Tigers, game grid inscribed on the wall of a well at the Chennakesava temple in Belur. Pic: Raghu Dharmendra

“By 2005, we engaged with craft clusters across India. We visited these places, understood the manufacturing process, and designed the product based on the motifs and other inputs provided by artisans,” says Singh. This project took him to inlay craftsmen in Mysore, Kalamkari artists and wooden toy (Etikoppaka) makers in Andhra Pradesh, Batik artists in West Bengal, hand-weavers of Solapur in Maharashtra and Pipli appliqué artists in Orissa.
As the manufacturers of traditional games prefer natural materials over plastic, achieving scale and finding the right supply-chain partners prove to be major challenges. “Many games are played with shells. We decided not to use them to preserve biodiversity. We researched and came up with a substitute — paper powder. But another challenge was to ensure that the probabilities (of the dice throw outcome) did not change with the use of other products,” Sidhartha explains.
RKP does not produce more than 800 games a year as all the pieces are handcrafted. “We don’t want to use mass methods of manufacturing,” says Singh. The prices start at ₹300 and go up to ₹20,000 for large pieces like the Mancala game board with 14 pits in brass, which can also be used as a showpiece.
At Kreeda, the various parts — dice, pawns, boards, packaging material, rules pamphlets and so on — arrive from different suppliers. “Each element of a game is sub-contracted to a specific supplier. We assemble everything in our own office. Managing inventory is very tough,” says Sidhartha, even as she looks for new ways to streamline supply chain and inventory management.
While RKP retails its traditional games on a non-profit basis (it runs a successful business in Mysore selling saris and handicrafts), Kreeda and Spardha are just about breaking even. “Financial challenges remain, but it is passion that keeps me going,” says Sidhartha.
Aside from logistical and funding challenges, these manufacturers are hampered by the absence of uniform rules for traditional games. Every few kilometres, the same game is played under different rules and even a different name. So, for instance, Goats and Tigers is known as Adu Huli, Puli Meka,Baag Bok, Huli Kattu and Bagh Bakri among a host of other names. “Our researchers use the common denominators from all such games to make the basic rules,” says Surapaneni.
Appealing to GenNext
Efforts are on to make the games more contemporary. Kreeda has created a module that teaches maths using traditional games, another for executive training, and an educational aid for specially-abled children. Its three-series game based on the Ramayana familiarises children with the epic and its characters.
Spardha, meanwhile, is attempting to carve out a new market by reminding people of the games that were traditionally gifted during a marriage. “In South India, there is a tradition of gifting board games at marriages. We are trying to revive that,” says Surapaneni, who already gets about a third of her sales from marriage halls.
As things stand, the revival of traditional games largely remains an urban phenomenon. The buyers are mainly from the older generation as they are likely to have played them or at least heard of them. An emerging category of enthusiasts comprises IT professionals eager to reconnect with their heritage. “They have also created gaming apps for Tic-tac-toe and Nine Men’s Morris,” says Singh.
The games are also a favourite with souvenir hunters and corporate gifters. “Many corporates are putting in bulk orders for occasions like Diwali,” says Sidhartha.
In the meantime, e-commerce sites such as Amazon, eBay and Snapdeal have weighed in with their own brand of support. “We can’t get their reach. We can piggyback on them and reach out to a larger audience,” says Sidhartha. She recently sold a game to a buyer in a small town of Spain. “Anybody who learns about them wants to try them.”
Mancala in Spain? The game is certainly on.
(This article waspublished on August 8, 2014)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Re:Play




When was the last time you played Goli on the streets of India ?
When was the last time you got tired hopping in a game of hopscotch ?
When was the last time you played a game of strategy and plotted your victory ?

Experience these games in many ways through 
Re:play
a performance duet inspired by traditional Indian games
at Atta Galatta bookstore, Koramangala Bengaluru
at Alliance Francaise, Banjara Hills,hyderabad

video


Through performance and storytelling Re:play is a game that is played with the audience between the audience and within oneself.

The performance is an immersive experience of the sounds rhythms patterns structures colours and narratives that traditional Indian games lend themselves to. 
This 80-minute journey evokes themes of mythology contemporary events memory Indian history as well as Indian folklore and asks the audience to be present in unique ways. 
The audience becomes part of the performance and through their participation the performance gains a new meaning.

Dates and Time: 

Bangalore
29th Nov (7.00 pm), 30th Nov (2.30 pm & 7 pm) and 1st December (2.30 pm & 7 pm)

Hyderabad
6th Dec (7.30 pm), 7th Dec (2.30 pm & 7.30 pm), 8th Dec(2.30 pm & 7.30 pm)

To know more about Re:play and the team, visit: Visual Respiration


To book tickets to this show, visit: Bookmyshow

Sunday, September 15, 2013

An Ode to Kreedaa Kaushalya


Games that were played from sun up to sun down
Those on which, parents never did frown.
They were played with passion and brought true joy
These were not just any old toy.

These were games which challenged the mind
And played where ever a little corner you could find.
They enchanted, entranced and excited the soul
Even if it was just dropping tamarind seeds into a bowl.

The 'gilli' that often made many a child smile,
While mothers spinned yarns, mile after mile.
Board games were not played because people were bored.
But played because they just could not be ignored.

Games give joy, take away pain.
Oh it's great to be a child, or, a child again.
May the creed of Kreedaa Kaushalya grow
And spread far and wide, high and low.

- Kalpana Singh