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

Monday, June 24, 2013

Cadfael, Bede Griffiths and Board games

What’s the connection? Plenty. Cadfael, because the televised series of the Benedictine monk who has been a man of many parts, introduced one the hidden fact that there exists in India several Benedictine Monasteries including one established by the iconic Dom Bede Griffiths.

This was where the monks and guests of Sachidananda Ashram of the Shantivanam Benedictine Monastery, when not working in the field, or praying , settle down for a game whose description is found in Kreeda Kaushalya portion of  Harikrishna’s magnum opus, Brihajjyotisharnava, composed in 1871.

Sachidananda Ashram is located on the banks of the River Kaveri sacred to the Southern region of India in  a small Tamil Nadu town called Tannirapali some 50 kms from Erode.

The monastery is not western in its orientation but is like an Indian ashram and the monks wear saffron lungis and cotton shawl to cover their bare upper bodies.

 The small chapel near the entrance is built like a typical Hindu temple and the Holy Trinity are shown dressed in Kurtas and dhoties while Mother Mary is dressed in a white sari with a pale blue border.

The monks live in small, neat thatched one room circular cottages and the guests are given similar accommodation. According to the Rule of St Benedict, the founder of the Order, guests are welcomed irrespective of their religious beliefs or even non religious leanings and can stay for three to four days as guests. Gratis!

 Of course, a small contribution to one of the Ashram’s many charities is welcomed.

The food is plain simple but substantial and vegetarian.

The Sachidananda Benedictine Monastery, was established by two monks, Fr La Saux better known as Swami Abhishiktananda  and Fr Bede Griffiths who also took on an Indian name but the name he was christened at his mother  monastery, Prinknash Abbey,  was Dom Bede Griffiths and that name stuck.

In  most of the other Benedictine Monasteries across India,  the monks, both old and young did nothing much between Lauds, Matins, Sext, None and Compline but gather up a couple of other monks and settle down for a good old-fashioned gossip about the current affairs.

Most monasteries get all English language dailies and monks can confuse you with the pious expressions, which they are taught to assume during their training period in the monks boot camps, when they avidly gossip about the latest scandal!

Here at Sachidananda Ashram library, there are several photocopies of the ancient spiritual game of snakes and ladders, the Gyan Chaupar. Obviously everyone played a game or two between siesta and the next meal!

The monk who had been deputed to be the Guest Master and Librarian had made these copies from an original  antique piece which had been collected by an Hippie from the Himalayas.

Anecdotal legend says that Fr Bede was shown this gift by the Hippie who claimed his name was ‘Louis Pasteur’ ( Straight... There is a card at the library saying this Pasteur was donating the game board along with the dice for letting him stay for two months).

Dom Bede Griffiths is supposed to have replied that this gift was a powerful tool that would be positive aid to spiritual growth.

We landed at  Sachidananda Ashram unannounced from Kodaikanal, on the recommendation of Prof. Calculus of the international school at Kodai.... ‘ It’s alright. old chap just drop in. .. as long as it is not the middle of the night... might look askance ... ask questions and that sort of thing....

Take a look at that old Spiritual Snakes and Ladders board when you are there. Worth a dekko...’ was the Prof’s parting words.

At tennish in the morning saw us take an auto from Marrudar to Tannirpalli and Shantivanam as the locals call it.

Place looked deserted and wandered through the unlocked gate, past a couple of somnolent cows, to be greeted by the sight of an out-of-breath Pug come waddling. The mutt led us unerringly back to the hut of Bro. Martin who welcomed us warmly, showed us to the cottage allotted  and handed a piece of paper with the timings written for breakfast, lunch, tea and supper.

The dear father was most surprised when asked about prayer timings, the Mass and that sort of thing.

The result, one spent three days lounging in the library, only stirring oneself to head for breakfast, tea at elevenses, lunch at 12 , tea and biscuits at 4pm and supper at 7-30 pm. Lights out at tennish or thereabouts..  

When asked about the legendary Gyan Chaupar , we were shown the treasure  kept rather carelessly in one of the cupboards over a pile of P G Wodehouses.

Gyan Chaupar loosely translated means, ‘Game of Knowledge’  or you could stretch things a bit and call it the ‘Tao of Knowledge.’ Or even better call it the good old board game of  ‘Snakes and Ladders.’

Gyan Chaupar is not very different from the Jain Gyan Chaupar boards, it just doctrinal differences.  In the Hindu Gyan Chaupar boards games  extensive use is made of  Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta or Tantric philosophy.

Simply put, on throws the dice, moves the required number of places  and as luck would have it climb the ladder or slip down the snakes throat and exit at the tail. The squares are given names that are indicative of desires, attachments, wise living and so on.

There is even an ancient Tibetan version of the Snakes and Ladders that is called, ‘ Determination of  the Ascension of Sages.

In this version the player progresses according  to the throw of the dice ‘hell states and other inauspicious states  by way of the Tantric Path to Buddhahood or Nirvana.

A Late 10th Century work, ‘Rishabhapanchashika’ attributed to Dhanapala, runs thus: “ Like gamesmen, the living beings on the gaming board of Samsara ( the cycle of rebirths)are carried away by the dice ( or senses), but when they see you, O Jina, the place of refuge (or square on a game board), they become free  from possession by prison, slaughter and death.”  

That about sums it up about the game and its variations that are to found elsewhere across the country.

So the next three days were spent when not eating Sattvic food  and lounging around , seated on the high verandah around the library, spreading out the Gyan Chaupar board and watching monks and other guests gathering around like ants to a honey pot and working out how one’s karma worked  and figure things out.

One other place you need to check out if you are interested in board games of this kind is to make a beeline to Ramsons , the huge handicrafts emporia opposite the zoo in Mysore, and ask and ye will be shown varieties of traditional Indian game boards.

Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, a trust formed to foster traditional handicrafts of India , hosts several annual exhibitions that showcase board games, dolls, and lamps from all over India.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sw Vivekananda and the game board

First,  before all those denizens get all worked up about  what they are about to read, it must be stressed in no uncertain terms that this post is a work of pure unadulterated fiction.

Having got that off our chest, we can begin sowing seeds of doubt in your fertile mind.
But then everyone who gets his daily dose of high delusional fiction from the various  dailies of  Mysore would have undoubtedly heard that Swami Vivekananda had stayed in Mysore for a few days though one evening daily claimed in a Leader that  the revered swamiji had stayed in the city for three weeks and meditated in the  Nirajana Mutt.

A Mutt is the Hindu equivalent of Liberty Hall  kind of Monastery!

But here’s a strange tale that surfaced very recently, whispered in hushed tones by a royal lady was that a priceless game board was gifted to the Swamiji by then Dewan, Sir Seshadri Iyer.

And that, said the royal lady, was now under the gavel at Sotheby’s London. Looked up the Sotheby’s auction catalogue and sure enough there was the board and quite a few other things from the Palace repository  which had no business being in Sotheby’s at all.

But then that is another story.

This game board,Devi Sayujya Mukti Atta (Karmic game of snakes and ,ladders )  was a complex invention of  Mummadi Krishna Raja Wadiyar, the Master of Board Games as he is known today in the world of  international game board experts!

Why was it given to Swami Vivekananda?

There are no records of the Swami being attached to one of the great games mentioned in the Kreeda Kaushalya portion of Harikrishna’s magnum opus, Brihajjyotisharnava, composed in 1871.

The Swamiji was a wrestler and given to working out. ( One thinks ‘ Pumping Iron’ might not be suitable here. )

And why this game in particular? Why not a plain old cloth Pachisi board or an ivory chess set?

Perhaps Chamarajendra Wadiyar felt that since Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was a Devi Upasaka, a devotee of  Mother Kali, and since Sw Vivekananda too was also a staunch devotee, the right gift would be the ‘ Devi Sayujya Mukti Atta which roughly translated means ‘ Attaining heaven, Devi’s Abode.’

Would the Ramakrishna Ashram and Vidyashala library in Mysore throw some light?

The voluminous records of books and letters maintained at the Sri Ramakrishna Ashram Library do not, I repeat , do not contain any references except for this  statement,’It is believed that Sw. Vivekananda had visited Mysore and had met the Wadiyar king who financed his visit to Chicago  to attend the World Congress of Religions. But there are no other records.’

The reference to the Wadiyar is to Chamarajendra Wadiyar who was the king after Mumadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar.

Other records particularly correspondences of  the Dewan mention that the Swamji was a guest of the Dewan.

Seshadri Iyer had met Sw Vivekananda in Bangalore and on learning that he wanted to attend the Chicago World Congress of Religions  but did not have the necessary wherewithal to buy the steerage fare, was taken back to Mysore.

The Swami was introduced to the King and Chamarajendra Wadiyar financed the trip of Sw. Vivekananda to Chicago.

Sources at the Ramana Ashramam in Tiruvanamalai in Tamil Nadu,  mentioned that Dewan Seshadri Iyer was related to Ramana Maharishi and added that that the tale of the game board of Mummadi being gifted to Sw Vivekananda was not true but yes, there was just such a game board at the house of one of the descendants of Seshadri Iyer.

But how the game board came to be in Tiruvanamalai and does it still exist or did it wing its way to London and end up under the gavel at Sotheby’s, one will never know.

But games similar to the one to be sold at Sotheby’s and other such traditional board games of India will be showcased when Ramsons Kala Pratishtana hosts its yearly Kreeda Kaushalya Mela of the Traditional Board Games of India.

Google Kreeda Kaushalya or Ramsons or better still if you happen to going walkabout in Mysore, stroll down to this emporia opposite the zoo and take a walk down lanes of dim and distant memories of the past when there was no TV and a few hand radios and one recreation that kept the family together was sitting around a traditional board game.

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.

The fourth option: A game of Dice

There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, you can suffer for her or you can turn her into literature.’ This sentence is from Lawrence Durell’s novel, Justine.

But there is one more option.

You can wager on her and lose her right out of your life.
It does seem strange that there are so many traditional board games of India or coming under the ambit of ‘Kreeda kaushalya’, that allow one to place his wife or close girl friend as the stake and place a wager.

Pagade is one of the games  where  a wager can be laid against the lady and woe betide if the man comes a cropper and  the lady is left out in the cold, for soon the man will realise that the famous phrase, ‘ Hell hath no fury like a  woman scorned’ was said by a man who spent a lot of time pondering over such things.

Pagade which is a race game, may be called the national game of India and is known by several aliases which we will not go into at this moment. The guilty have to be shielded.

Men and women gather around at festival time to play this race game, Pagade. Mostly women play the game, though boys may play in a game or two but it is dicey thing since it may be construed that one is not all that kosher.
If you have been an avid collector of the ersatz Rajasthani or Mughal Miniatures paintings you are likely to have come across a painting of a group of Pagade players, dressed in funny, ill-fitting, green coloured shortened  kurtis that flare widely and bunched up pantaloons that narrow down from knees downward sitting awkwardly  playing this race game with small silken bags of money by their sides.

The women are seated at a discreet distance making signs egging  their menfolk on with word and sharp gestures and on the branch of the tree close by is an extremely suspect parrot.

 You must have seen these paintings being passed off as the real stuff in the antique shops of Paharganj in Old Delhi or Chor Bazar in Mumbai.

Anyway it is proof enough that there was money to be wagered at a game of Pagade. Run out of money, then its time to whip off that fake Singapore-made Mont Blanc watch or Taiwan-made Patek Phillippe  and lay it on the table. The watches are guaranteed to work for a year!

Or one could be getting fed up with the wife’s contradictory instructions, stake her depending on how much you think is her worth and then get on with the game.

Betting with money, the gold necklaces  and finally the wife as stake has a hoary history immortalised in epic  and song. The downside of such misadventures are the moral of these epics but then who ever listens to an epic reading !

In one of India’s greatest epics,  the Mahabharata, the feckless, dithering king Yudishtira who gets into a zombie like trance whenever he  asked to give an opinion which people mistake for innate wisdom, once gets dragged into a game of dice by not being able to say a simple,’ Nay.’

The king soon stakes all that he has and proceeds to lose everything and is about to lose his wife too when the God Krishna steps in, ‘ Enough is enough’ he says and proceeds to sort out bad guys out.

But  the upshot is that the king and his brothers  along with their ‘common’ wife are forced to pack their bundles and head out into the forest, that being nearby.  After years of tribulation they come back to wreck mayhem on the felons which is something they ought to have done right at the very beginning.

 Anyway back in those early history days there was always a forest close by  and anyone who was getting fed up with life could head into the nearest woods , with the stream close by, build a hut and generally chill out,  grow his hair  ( ‘ down to my knees’ as John Lennon sang) and spend days reciting from Allan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ or that moth-eaten Zen Koan book.

The local villagers  get to think that you are one wise hombre and will bring you milk and fruits everyday.
Cool! What? You mean there were no books back in those days let alone Howl?

But it is not just man but the gods themselves who have shaken a pair of dice ( loaded at that )  and played what present day experts call the earliest version of Backgammon.

Honest truth! There are scores of temple sculptures across the country where the God Shiva is shown playing a game of backgammon with His consort Parvathi.

The God Shiva finds Parvathi using her womanly wiles is winning game  after game and decides to switch to a loaded pair of dice  and wins.

The point is that chucking a pair of dice or several pairs of dice and wagering on the numbers ( Read Ring Lardner, Bret Harte or Damon Runyon for a perfect description of a game of dice !!!)  has been around inspite of all those dire tales about what will happen to those who shake a pair of dice.

But then why on earth would one want to shake a pair of dice to see if it is a good day to step out and play the horses?

One needs to figure this one out.

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.