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The final card

The hand-painted Dashavatar cards of Bishnupur

Sital Fauzdar instructs children in his extended family on painting Dashavatar cards.
Sital Fauzdar instructs children in his extended family on painting Dashavatar cards.

This is my workshop," says Sital Fauzdar. I look around the room, littered with cardboard, strips of cloth, bottles of tamarind glue and boxes of paint. It seems hard to believe that a 460-year-old tradition is kept alive right here, in this small room in a modest home in the dusty by-lanes of Bishnupur, West Bengal’s temple town.

Fauzdar explains the process of making round Dashavatar cards. Each pack has 120 cards, with 12 cards in 10 suits showing the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu. First, layers of old cloth are pasted together with tamarind glue. Once stretched and dried, they are cut into circular pieces and coated with a base colour. The real craftsmanship begins now, with delicate brushstrokes etching out the details of the incarnations. “The Dashavatar figures are inspired from the terracotta panels of the Bishnupur temples," Fauzdar says.

The cards are used in a complex game traced to the royal court of Bishnupur, where it was introduced by king Hambir Malla in the late 16th century. Played by five people, it was a source of royal entertainment for more than three centuries. Gaming rules were rather strict. For example, a game starting during the day had to begin with the “Ram" suit and a twilight game with the “Nrisingha" suit. On a rainy day, it had to be the “Kurma"!

With the introduction and easy availability of European printed cards, the Dashavatar game declined in popularity; now, only a handful of players in and around Bishnupur know its complex rules. Fauzdar, who learnt the game from his uncle, shares the rules with tourists who buy a full pack of 120 cards—which costs Rs12,000-15,000—from him (a set of 10 cards costs Rs1,500).

“I don’t know how long I can continue with the tradition. There’s hardly any interest in the cards here," says Fauzdar. A recipient of the Kamaladevi Puraskar for young craftspersons, Fauzdar has exhibited his artwork on the cards in Japan and England. But he knows he might well be the last card-maker in a family that has carried on this folk art tradition for nearly five centuries.

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