Monday, December 2, 2013


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 
a performance duet inspired by traditional Indian games
at Atta Galatta bookstore, Koramangala Bengaluru
at Alliance Francaise, Banjara Hills,hyderabad


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: 

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

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

Friday, June 21, 2013

Life on the Street

Mysore, the city of the magnificent Mysore Palace often wrongly called Amba Vilasa Palace, in the late 50s was still a somnolent city whose characters seemed to have stepped out of fictional Malgudi created by that master story-teller R K Narayan.

The street where one lived was just off the conservancy lane in the then new extension, Laxmipuram.

If you have read R K Narayan’s ‘Swami and His Friends’ or ‘Mr. Sampath’ you will recognise that RKN’s ‘Lawley extension’ is nothing but then newly formed Laxmipuram extension.

If you walk past RK Narayan’s house which still stands today and to the corner of  Hardwicke church and down the road, you will come to Vani Vilasa market.
Beside the arched entrance to the market, next to the Mysore jasmine seller and the agarbathi incense stick sellers you will find yourself at the door, actually a three paneled door, that folded like a huge concertina, of the ’Honesty Tailoring Hall.’

Stone steps lead to the shop which still stands today with a gnome seated at a sewing machine surrounded by various un-tailor shop accessories like vials of strange Ayurvedic medicines, pennants of some political party, planks of plywood, cartons and a bicycle propped against one of the shelves, obviously unused for years,  going by the patina of grime on  the machine.

Fixed to the door there remains from the past an old photograph greying a bit, the frame chipped, showing several serious looking men sitting and standing all dressed in cotton suits ‘ borrowed’ from customers who had yet to collect them. Above their heads is the legend, ‘Honesty Tailoring Hall.

The stone steps of Honesty was a hangout of various gentlemen who ‘vaguely’ worked in ‘Aramane’ ( The Palace).

Sitting on the steps they would for the tailors to take a break  and all would gather around to play a game of Pachisi.

The game board has been described in great detail in Kreedaa-Kaushalya portion of Harikrishna’s magnum opus, Brihajjyotisharnava, composed in 1871.

  Harikrishna, Who? A scribe of ancient times !

But for more about this game and others one needs to check out at  Ramsons Kala Pratishtana of Mysore, a trust set up to revitalise the handicrafts and traditional board games tradition of the country.
The folks there will give you a run down about the Pachisi. Ramsons Kala Pratishtana is located at Ramsons, the largest and most comprehensive handicrafts emporia in Mysore located bang opposite the zoo.

Pachisi ( the word means 25 in Hindi) used to played for stakes  but many play just for fun.

The  Pachisi board is four-armed with playing squares which are known as ‘Houses’ embroidered on a usually embroidered piece of square cloth.

 Instead of ordinary cubed dice, stick dice are used. There are four sets of counters( each set has four ) coloured red, black, yellow and green and as mentioned a pair of stick dice.

Each of the four players competes to send his counters down the centre of the arm from the middle, counterclockwise around the perimeter and back to the starting point. Skill is needed to thwart  and block the enemy  and ‘killing’ opposing pieces during the race.

But then it was not the game itself but the small motley crowd  that gathered around on the steps leading to ‘Honesty Tailoring Hall.’

One of the characters who often dropped by from the printing press opposite also figured in one of the RKN’s novels as the man with the original Heidleberg machine.

 He used to have some half-a-dozen copies of the novel, ‘Mr Sampath’ in which he figured and would point out with pride to the passages where he was mentioned.

Another character who when he dropped by for a fitting was the original Vasu, the star of the ‘Man-eater of Malgudi.

Pachisi was not for him and fancied himself as a master Chess player.

 This Vasu which was not his name, had trained as a taxidermist with the world famous Van Ingen and Co who stuffed various wildlife from all corners of the globe at their factory on the outskirts of Nazarbad. Indeed the work done by Van Ingen was said to be even better  than 'Rowland and Ward.'

Vasu when not sitting by the window seat of his establishment that was once on Chamaraja Double Road, could be seen polishing his 'Purdey Over and Under' till it glistened in the faint light from the road.

 There would be a stuffed owl and on the stairs, a stuffed tiger cub with a slightly drunken expression and a pair of glassy-eyed mongooses whose fur looked like a moth-eaten doo mat.

But that is another story.

Like story of the Muslim flower vendor who sat just outside Vani Vilasa Market  and  and often dropped in on a game when he saw us gathered on the steps of ‘Honesty Tailoring Hall.’

 It was this nameless Muslim flower vendor  who even as he adeptly created magical garlands of intoxicating jasmine of the Mysore variety,who coined the name, ‘Mysooru Malige ‘  when the great poet K S Narasimhaswamy  confessed one evening when he went to buy the usual foot long garland of jasmine that would be kept before the Gods, that he had just written a book of poems that could be sung and set to music but was however stumped about what to call the book.

As the poet narrates in one his letters to the legendary C D Narasimahiah who during his tenure as Professor of English created the rarified air of Cambridge within the campus of the Mysore University, that  it was his friend the flower vendor who had coined  the name, Mysooru Mallige....

The rest is history.... songs  from Mysooru Mallige are sung to this day just as the game of Pachisi is played to this day in the lanes and bylanes of this laidback city.

When Ramsons Kala Pratishtana hosts its yearly Kreeda Kaushalya Mela of the Traditional Board Games of India, that’s when one gets to see and buy choosing from an exotic and eclectic range of Pachisi board games along with hundreds of other types of games.

Check the website, Kreeda Kaushalya or Ramsons or better still if you happen to going walkabout in Mysore, stroll down to this emporia opposite the zoo  and get mesmerized.

And if you are an old Mysorean who is back searching for your roots then these games will help you rediscover a lost past of the fictional city of Malgudi.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Pallanguli, Mancala - what’s in a name!

This traditional game, known as Palanguli or Aluguli depending on which southern State of India  you come from,  is played on specials festive days in Southern India.

It is supposed to be a woman’s game it is usually played as a part of the festive rituals on Shivarathri and Vaikunta Ekadasi days. The game is associated  with the heroine of 'Ramayana', the Earth Goddess Sita, who while pining in captivity for her husband, Lord Rama, invents the game of Aluguli
The game with its religious origins has been popular in almost all middle class households particularly Southern India.

Women were encouraged to play this game since the husbands would go to work either in paddy fields or business at Sunrise and would return only after Sunset. The women to while away the long hours  would play this game with other women.

An Aluguli board either in wood or heavy copper and brass was a must in every household

People would look askance if a woman confessed that she played neither the game nor had a game board at home. Short of sending her out into the cold, the hapless woman would be  the subject of much discussion. What on earth does she do the whole day till her husband gets back!
The Aluguli or Palanguli game begins with six seeds placed in each cup. The player starting first picks up the seeds from any of her holes and, moving anti-clockwise, places one seed in each hole. If she reaches the end of her cups she goes on the other side of the board.

When the player drops her last seed, she takes the seeds from the next cup and continues placing them in this way. If the last seed falls into a cup with an empty cup following it, the seeds in the cup following the empty cup, are captured by the player

The game which was also very popular along the sea coast of Tamil Nadu also contributed to the game being adopted by traders  and sailors who took the game along with them  and played on ships or their homelands.

But the point that is interesting that the basic rules kept changing with the place.
The fact that game board historians have unearthed near identical games across various geographical regions shows that this game must have traveled along trade routes from the time of oral history traditions.

In the Middle east the game was better known as Mancala , which must have had its roots  in Aluguli was taken to West Africa by Arab Dhows and from there to the Caribbean countries that lay on the slave trade route.

The game boards have a row of holes or pits  and identical counters  of either sea shells ( cowries) coloured seeds or coins were and are still used. In a pinch even rounded pebbles and stones have been used as counters.

The object of the game played from West Africa to Barbados seems to have been to capture  a majority of counters or empty one or more rows of the opponent.

The point is that various rules seem to have evolved with the playing of the game in different places.

In the island of Seychelles,a game that is similar to Palanguli called ‘Makonn’ in the local language is played. instead of the two rows of pit there are four rows of the pits each.

Close in similarity to the Makonn is a game called ‘Hawali’ played in Mozambique.

There is an interesting twist. Sitting at a bar in the rural outback of some tiny town in Australia, a friend, Guy,   who had been a long time resident of Sri Ramana Ashram in Tiruvanamalai in South India, heard what looked like a Tamil dialect behind him.

Wiping the froth from his lips, he turned around and saw three Aborigine men. Said Guy later, their language was remarkably like old Classical Tamil and on a hunch, he pulled out a small Aluguli board out of his rucksack and wondered if the Abos recognised it.

Sure they did and played a game with Guy with rules that looked remarkably like rules of play of Aluguli.  

By the way since there are no religious connotations to the game that is being played in the Middle East or the Caribbean or any of the other places on the islands of the Indian Ocean , the game is played by both sexes.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Game of Ganjifa

The very set of rules to play a game of Ganjifa cards were outlined by one Vireshwara, a court physician of Ahmednagar in the early 16th Century.
As in all other cards games, there evolved variations to these rules depending on the region.

Ganjifa is a ‘Trick-taking ‘ game. Similar in some ways to Contract Bridge or whist. But there are rigid rules about what cards may be led. There are no trumps. There are no obligations to follow Suit if a player cannot win a Trick.

In one half of the Suits, Ten is the highest and One is the lowest. in the other half, the ranking is reversed.

Usually a game of Ganjifa cards involves three players. But when the Suits are 12 or more than four players can sit around for a game.

All cards are dealt out in counter clockwise fashion. The Raja (Mir) of an agreed Suit is lead and along with  this card, the player puts down a low value card called  ‘Throne.’
With these two cards he winds the first two Tricks.

Now comes the tough part. The rules begin to get more complex about which cards must lead next.
If any player has the highest card in a suit, then he is obliged to play if that Suit is to lead. If he fails to do so, the card loses its value.

As in bridge, the player has to remember which cards have been played.

The four-player ganjifa game which is played in various parts of Orissa has four players grouped in opposing pairs.

 A pack of 144 cards is used. The dealer and his partner must win all 36 Tricks. The pair is aided in this by  a Rule that required their opponents to discard their highest cards if they cannot  follow suit.

One way to figure this out is to get a pack of ganjifa cards  and get a set of rules to play the game. One place  where you can pick up several Ganjifa card packs is Ramsons Kala Pratisthana, which has an outlet at the well-known Ramsons Handicrafts Emporium in Mysore.

You can even check out the Ramsons website and order online.

Ramsons Kala Pratishtana is a trust set up in 1995 to foster the traditional handicrafts of India and has been conducting annual exhibitions of both handicrafts and traditional board games. If you are going walkabout in Mysore make a beeline to Zoo and bang opposite is Ramsons.

The World of Ganjifa cards

These are ‘playing’ cards like no other.You will not find them  on tables of the great gambling spots of the world. They are circular  and painted with religious or quasi-religious motifs that may be completely alien to the western player.

You cannot slip an extra Ace under the sleeve of your jacket or in the collar at the back of your neck or keep it snug along with your spring action Derringer along you forearm hidden by the large sleeve of your baggy coat. .

Having said that and hopefully stopped you from packing a pack of 320 or 96 cards in your carpet bag and heading to that off-shore floating casino where you could interest other high rollers in a game of cards and hopefully clean them up, a brief recap of the history of these Ganjifa cards is necessary to convince you that it is going to be mighty uncomfortable to stash a couple of major cards.

Ganj’ means ‘ Treasury’ in Persian and there is mention of this word in connection to a card game in the Emperor Babur’s memoirs. In the Rubaiyat-i-Ganjifa of the Persian poet Ahli Shirazi ( 1514 or -15 or thereabouts) there is mention of a 8-suited pack.

This is better known as Mughal Ganjifa pack and Shirazi records the names of 8 suits : Ghulam (Servant), Taj (Crown), Shamsher (Sword), Asrafi ( gold coins), Chang (lamp), Barat ( document), Tanka (silver coins) and Qimash (merchandise).

Mughal Ganjifa pack consists of 96 cards ( 8 suits of 12 cards each ), 10 of each suit are number cards and 2 are court cards - the Mir ( King)  and the Wazir ( Minister).

Then there is  the Mysore Chamundeswari Chad ganjifa which is said to have been devised by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, a king whose name is revered among board game masters across the world.  This Chamundeshwari Chad consists of 320 cards. Sixteen suits each of 18 cards plus a further 25 depicting different goddesses and seven  with a swan motif.

Each of the 16 suits has a presiding deity and includes  the patron goddess of the state of Mysore, Chamundeshwari and the gods  Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Brahma , Indra and Ganesha.

The suits are based on a variety of themes that included the signs of the zodiac, the Dikapalas ( guardians of the 8 points of the compass) and the Navagraha ( the 9 planets of Indian astrology).

The Mysore Chamundeswari Chad-Ganjifa cards owe their existence to king of the erstwhile Mysore kingdom, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar  the Third. The king who was better known as Mummadi, was literally ‘deposed’ by the English who kept him on a powerless titular head, spent his days devising various board games including complex variations to Chess and other mathematical puzzle games.

The King who according to the story handed down from Palace flunkeys, is said to have locked himself in a huge room on the fourth floor of  Jaganmohana Palace and awaited  the manifestation of the God  Krishna  who sat with for hours playing a variety of board games. To this day the king is forgotten in his once royal kingdom but is revered in the esoteric world of international board game experts as the Ultimate Master of Board Games.

The king according the copious notes that he kept, took the usual Ganjifa cards  and improvised on them. The card packs ranged from 36 to 320.

 But somehow the King's variations of the game of cards never really took off outside the Palace or for that matter in India. The popularity being confined to the four walls of the Palace.

The Rajasthan Ganjifa which is popular to this day is a variation of the Mughal ganjifa but the motifs used are Rajasthani icons, gods etc. The Mirs are depicting sitting on thrones while the Wazirs are all on horseback except the Wazir of Ghulam  who is shown riding an ox, the Wazir of Chang is shown riding a camel  while the Wazir of Surkh is depicted riding a tiger.

The Sawantwadi Dashavatara Cards are unique to the region of Sawantwadi in Maharashtra. Sawantwadi looks like an extension of one of the quaint Goan Portuguese regions.and Panaji is a mere 50 km away.
The place with its huge typical Portuguese style colonial bungalows with Hindu motifs , there are coconut groves all over the place  and tiny eating tavernas dotted along winding roads.

Apart from an exquisite Malwani cuisine of fiery fish curry and rice, Sawantwadi is also known as a centre for the manufacture of what is known as Dashavatar ganjifa cards.

These are painted and lacquered cards and indeed the very first card in the Dashavatara pack is the one with the Vishnu incarnation as Matsya.  The card brought back memories of various fish curry and rice meals that one had across the North and South Goa including Sawantwadi!

There are two types of ganjifa cards manufactured here. One is the Bazar style which is meant for ordinary playing a and the other is the ‘Darbar Kalam’ which was meant for use at  the Royal court or by those of the Sawantwadi gentry.

The original  8-suit Mughal style of cards was adapted  and improvised to suit Hindu tastes by increasing the number of suits.

The suits are based on the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. Thus, there is the Matsya suit  with its fish motif, the Kurma ( Tortoise) suit, Varaha ( Boar or conch shell) suit, the Narasimha ( Lion) suit, Vamana ( Dwarf ) suit, Parashurama ( axe motif) suit and the Rama suit (with the three motifs of monkey, bow and arrow ).

Then the players can choose any two from the following suits: Krishna, Jaganatha and Buddha suits. The tenth suit is Kalki with the sword and horse motif.

One other place where Ganjifa cards are still used in play more than anywhere else in the country is Orissa’s district of Paralkhmudi.

The ganjifa cards are known as Ramayana Ganjifa ( Ganjapa in Oriya language ) which is a eight colour pack ( ath rangi sara ).    These 12 suited pack includes depictions on the cards of Karikeya and Ganesh while the 16-suit cards have paintings of Shiva, Brahma, Yama and Indira.

All Ganjifa cards whether the earlier Mughal, or the Rajasthani, the Orissa and the Mysore cards were made of papier-mache on stiffened cloth. They were all painted by hand.  Vegetable dye colours were used for the court cards while the commoners variety used the western oil and watercolour paints.

There is also one unusual set made from Ivory. These cards which are 80mm in diameter and have been dated 1760 and are said to have belong to Robert Clive, the East India Company Governor-General who systematically went about pillaging the country of its riches apart from foisting false cases on unsuspecting natives and getting them strung up the nearest gallows.

More information about these ivory cards are to be found in ‘ Treasures of India: The Clive Collection at Pois Castle’ by Mildred Archer, Christopher Rowell and Robert Sketon (Eds).

The main centres for the cards were Bishampur in West Bengal, Nirmal in Andhra Pradesh and Parlakhmudi, Raghurajpur and Sonepat districts of Orissa. Needless to say people in all these places still play Ganjifa card games.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Master of Board Games

'Master of Board Games ' -  This title goes to Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar III.  And it was accorded by the learned masters of board games, both scholars and amateurs at several International Board Games meets!

 A brief note about  this king will not be out of place.

 Mummadi  ascended the throne when he was still a boy of five in uncertain times. It was a tumultuous period in history. Tipu Sultan had been defeated and the English on the urgings of the young king’s mother and later his guardian as regent, Rajamata Lakshmammanni, crowned  him the ruler of Mysore. The period 1811 to 1868 saw the beginning of a new era for the kingdom of Mysore. But not it seems for the king, who according to historians, was  a soft-hearted and kind man.

It is believed by some scholars that it was only after Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar ‘gave ‘ up the throne in 1831 that he had the time and the inclination to patronise the arts and indulge in his passion for board games and mathematical  puzzles.

Such was his vast grasp of various board games that  he not only devised several new variations of some of the classic games but wrote voluminous commentaries on games, commissioned court painters to paint  murals of board games so that the whole world would come to know more about them.

Written manuscripts, murals, inscribed copper plates, game boards, dice and counters and inscribed copper coins form the vast corpus of work of Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar on board games.

Among his many writings, mention may be made of : Chaduranga Sarasarvasvam, SriKrishnaraja Chaduranga Sudhakarah, Kempu Kitabu, Sankya Shastra, Chaduranga Chamaatkrita Chakra Manjari, Chanduranga Bannada Mane.

The top floor of Sri Jayachamaraja Art gallery (the erstwhile Jaganmohan Palace) is a veritable treasure house of the board games invented, devised and improvised by Mummadi.

The murals which have now been restored to their past glory are  in dark earthy colours of reds, orange, yellow and black and are in the form of boards ( 6x6, 8x8,10x10 and a few 12x12 squares). Many of the murals  have figures of animals or have geometric patterns.
The Karmic game of Shivasayujam ‘ reinvented ‘ by Mummadi is a spiritual version of the game of snakes and ladders meant for four players . In Mummadi’s variation, the deity appears in a 'Mukhalinga' form in the middle of the board wih at the centre, with Nandi, Ganesha and other deities. The four players each have six pieces, whose starting squares are marked within lotuses at the corners of the board.

The games of Shivasayujyam and Devisayujyam (  which is also based on the law of Karma ) have religious motifs and are supposed to lead the thoughts of the players to the realm of the gods themselves.
There are of course several other writings of Mummadi that deserve to be mentioned but one that is stupendous in its scope is ‘SriTatvaNidhi.’ A rough translation could be  ‘ Illustrious Treasure of Truth.’

According to scholars, SriTatvaNidhi is a compilation of the iconography of South India deities and planets and commentaries on them.  It is believed that apart from two surviving copies , one at Mysore’s Oriental Research Institute (ORI) and the other at the Saraswati Bandaram Library at the Mysore Palace, there is one other section of this work that is in an undisclosed  private collection in the USA!

The SriTatvaNidhi was meant to be a reference work and one portion (Nidhi) the Kautuka Nidhi ( published by the ORI) is a compilation of the board games, their history, rules of the game as well as the variations devised by Krishnaraja Wadiyar.

Mummadi is also said to have devised complex card games to be played with Ganjifa or Chad cards. In SritatvaNidhi’s Kautuka Nidhi, Mummadi  describes 13 card games requiring anywhere between 36 and 360 cards.

Mummadi’s contributions have yet to be recognised in this country though he is better known in the rarefied air of board games players abroad.

Kreeda Kaushalya hosted by Ramsons Kala Pratishtana  (RKP) is in one way a homage to Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar.

Kreeda Kaushalya which began on  May 10th at RKP’s Pratima  Gallery above Aamrapalli Showroomon the Nazarbad Main Road will conclude on May 26th  at around sevenish.

 Kreeda Kaushalya is  just one of the  many initiatives of RKP to revitalise the handicrafts industry of the country and provide a fillip to crafts persons across the country.