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Ancient folk games make a comeback

  • Through cafes and conferences, Wagh Bakri, Pachisi and other indigenous board games are finding new takers across
  • Many of these are can be traced back by centuries, even millennia

Ganjifa cards by Kavade.
Ganjifa cards by Kavade.

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Wanphai Nongrum, 46, vividly remembers the games he played when he was five years old. There was Maw Korkatia, played with lychee or tamarind seeds. Absorbed in this game, the elders in his family would while away the long nights guarding their fields. Three rounds of Maw Korkatia could last for 9 long hours. “I used to enjoy folk games like this one and thought that if I didn’t do something about them soon, they will disappear,” says Nongrum.

This is what led Nongrum to set up the You & I Arts Café in Shillong in 2016. The café, which is “all about childhood memories”, has traditional musical instruments and serves Khasi fare such as phan saw (boiled red potatoes), fermented fish and green herbs. The idea is to get visitors (not customers, Nongrum clarifies) to gather around a family meal. He says, “People don’t have time to sit together and share a meal these days.”

The same philosophy extends to the board games at the café as well. Nongrum is among those entrepreneurs and researchers in India who are reviving traditional board games by setting up spaces and encouraging people to try their luck with rolling dice and pawns. At the You & I Arts Café, Nongrum gets visitors to try out games such as Maw Korkatia or Dieng Ia The, a version of pick-up sticks played by the Khasi tribe. This is where people come for the food but stay for the games.

The interest in indigenous Indian board games is on the rise. In the first weekend of June, India’s first national conference dedicated solely to the country’s ancient board games was held in Mumbai. Playing With The Past, organized by the India Study Centre (Instucen), a cultural research organization, built on the success of an Ancient Games Weekend held in 2018 in collaboration with the Centre for Extra Mural Studies at the University of Mumbai, where adrenalin-pumped visitors did their best to win Navara-Navari, based on the Ramayan, and Wagh Bakri, a strategy game where tigers and goats try to outsmart each other.

Mugdha Karnik, managing trustee of Instucen, says their aim is to popularize the games not in their digitized forms but as “physical sensual games”. “As you play, there should be a lot of clapping and arguing and laughter—not just pairs of eyes glued to the screens. We want to revive not just traditional games but also the way they are played,” says Karnik.

R.G. Singh, one of the speakers at the conference, is an expert on the collection of board games of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, a 19th century maharaja of the erstwhile kingdom of Mysore. When asked about the different categories of indigenous board games, Singh says these can be largely categorized as race games, strategy games, war games and alignment games.

Solah Seedi, made by Kreeda Games. Courtesy: Kreeda
Solah Seedi, made by Kreeda Games. Courtesy: Kreeda

Many are not just centuries old but can be traced back to over a millennium. They were played across the subcontinent, and every community had a version. Maw Korkatia, for instance, is a version of Mancala, a game that may have originated 7,000 years ago, and is also known as Pallanguzhi in Tamil or Aliguli Mane in Kannada. Recent research shows that Wagh Bakri was developed from an Arabian game called Alquerque. Pachisi exists in its modern form as Ludo.

Several Hindu texts show how gods and goddesses indulged in board games from time to time. A captive Sita passed her time at Ashok Van playing Aliguli Mane. In the Mahabharat, Chausar, a form of Pachisi, was the fateful game played by the Pandavas and Kauravas, which ultimately resulted in the disrobement of Draupadi.

Singh is the secretary of Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, an arts trust in Mysuru that organizes a board games biennale; its eighth edition was held in April. The biennale was held at Ramsons’ flagship store, which has a game parlour.

It’s not just about nostalgia, says Singh. This is an opportunity to marry the traditional crafts with these games, which is why the trust seeks out Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh, Bidri from Karnataka and pit-loom weavers from Maharashtra to fashion the boards. “We have boards that you can use to play regularly with or those that are collectors’ items,” he says. The cost of a basic board starts from 650 and can go up to 75,000.

A game of Chowka Bara in session at Kavade. Photographs courtesy: Kavade
A game of Chowka Bara in session at Kavade. Photographs courtesy: Kavade

In Chennai, Kreeda Games operates on similar principles. Set up by former journalist Vinita Sidhartha in 2002, the rise of e-commerce and social media has helped Kreeda reach out to more people in recent years. The store’s products are identifiable by their distinct colour palette of red and yellow. “Reviving these games is also about reviving the spirit of tradition with materials,” says Sidhartha.

The revival of these is linked to an increasing pride in all things “Indian”, believes Sidhartha. “I don’t mean this as a nationalistic appeal but this interest in appreciating your culture,” she says. Bengaluru-based G.S. Sreeranjini, who runs a store called Kavade Toyhive, agrees. She says, “Remembering that your cultural history is not just about plundering but also these interesting games is important.”

Sreeranjini, like many other entrepreneurs in this space, sought inspiration from her own childhood. The simple pleasure of playing a board game with neighbours and friends materialized in 2008 in the form of Kavade, which also has an events space where gamers can congregate and roll the dice for a game of Chausar.

Sreeranjini has also been getting customized orders. “We see how to take the games out to the community, to the street and public spaces, apartments and corporates,” she says. A permanent installation of Pallanguzhi, carved out of stone and completely weather-proof, has been set up at the Canadian International School in Bengaluru. “We are also trying to see how we can play with natural material that is collected from your garden,” she says.

This eco-sensitive approach is something that is inherent in the name of her establishment as well. Kavade means cowrie, which has been used as dice in the great epics.

Kavade has a mix of games catering to different age groups, but most can be played by children as young as 3 as well as those in their 60s or 70s. “Games are a tool to get a community together, engage meaningfully with the community, your grandparents and aunts and uncles…. It forces people to come together,” she says.

Visitors can bring their own games too, with no restrictions on modern board games. But Scrabble or Monopoly will have to fight it out with Pachisi or Badra Kattam.

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