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 √§rgere 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.


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!