Mysuru is currently playing host to the ninth edition of Kreedaa Kaushalya, a biennale focused entirely on traditional Indian board games. This edition features over 30 indoor games, which were once played across the length and breadth of the subcontinent. The event aims to revive indigenous crafts that once went into traditional gaming equipment, besides also offering a fresh lease of life to the forgotten games. Based on extensive research gleaned from field trips, this edition focuses on board games and crafts from Karnataka. Some of these include Chauka Bara, Adu Huli, Pagaday, Chaduranga, Aligulimane and Navakankari, which in turn showcase crafts such as the famous rosewood inlay work of Mysuru, kalamkari from Kalahasti, and wood lacquer work from Channapatna.
According to Raghu Dharmendra, an art historian, product designer and curator of Kreeda Kaushalya, board games have always been part of myths and folklore, though they may have faded from view in recent years. After all, a major twist in the Mahabharat happens with a game of dice. Similarly, there is a popular story about the game of Chaupad, or Pagaday, between Shiva and Parvati. Dharmendra says the Aksha Sukta—a group of verses from the Rigveda—is dedicated to a particular nut used in one game. “The Jain philosophers devised a game board to teach the concepts of Jain philosophy, which was called Gyan Bazi. This is the original template for the Moksha Pata, or Snakes and Ladders,” he adds.
It all began when Dharmendra, curious about a time when there was no radio or television, began researching. He came across beautiful board games, with silk embroidery and golden pawns, in museums—a far cry from the mass-produced printed boards and moulded plastic pieces of today. In 1995, he set up the foundation Ramsons Kala Pratishtana to study the games and their regional variations, infuse new life into them and revive crafts related to gaming equipment. Today, his team’s research, design development and interventions for Kreedaa Kaushalya even see craftspersons creating limited-edition pieces for collectors.
“We started working with about 30 craft clusters across India by providing them with game patterns and details. After several years of this groundwork, we unveiled the products at the first Kreedaa Kaushalya in the summer of 2007,” says Dharmendra. The Handicrafts Emporium that is showcasing the biennale, on till 31 May, funds the product development. In 2016, they brought out a book, Traditional Indian Boardgames, with instructions for 21 games, accompanied by glimpses of their research. Over the years, the number of games and associated craft forms has grown, and that is reflected in the growth of the biennale itself.
During field trips, the team makes it a point to visit old temples, palaces, ghats and museums. Temples often have petroglyphs of game patterns on flagstones. For instance, if you stroll down the lanes of Varanasi, parallel to the Ganga ghats, you will see patterns of Navakankari, or Sixteen Sepoys, etched on the raised stone platforms in front of the houses. “We photograph these, engage with the local people about the patterns, and play the game with them to learn about the regional variation,” explains Dharmendra.
In Sri Arkeshwara temple in Mysuru district’s Krishnarajanagar, the team came across an unusual pattern and discovered two games could be played on it. One was a hunt game with goats and tigers, the other was a war game. This was developed and packaged as Shara Vyuha.
“No matter how many online games one plays,” says Dharmendra, “the pleasure of rolling a pair of dice on the floor can never be achieved virtually.”
Rahul Kumar is a Gurugram-based culture writer.