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The town of Sawantwadi was founded as the capital of the princely state of Sawantawadi by Raja Khem Sawant II in 1692. The town is almost buried in palm groves and stretches around the border of lake Moti. Surrounded by well wooded hills on all sides, the highest, Narendra Peak on the west rises to 1200 ft. above sea level. Sawantwadi was a small principality in India (now Maharashtra Konkan) not far from Vengurla. This small state flourished under Khem Sawant III (1755-1803), during the late 18th century.
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The densely wooded hills so close to the town boundaries, the quiet pastoral atmosphere, the traditional patronage of the ruling house of Sawantwadi must have all compounded to nourish an excellent tradition of arts and crafts in this border town of Maharashtra. Khem Sawant III was a patron of Arts and Music. He attracted artists to his court and state and settled large numbers of storytellers, puppet-players and other entertainers in the village Pinjoli (Kudal Taluka), where even today sixty to seventy such families have their base.
It is a well known fact that in the 17th and 18th centuries a number of very learned Brahmins from the Andhra and Telangana areas visited Sawantwadi to hold discourses in Dharmashastras with the late Rajabahadur Khem Sawant III Bhonsle who was the ruler of the state of Sawantwadi.
It is likely that it were these Telegu Brahmins who passed on their art to a special caste of artists, Chitaris of whom only a few still exist in town.
Though the Chitaris form an insignificant minority in the Sawantwadi population, every street urchin and the owner of pedhi (shop) points proudly towards the ascending street leading to "Chitari Ali". The Chitaris live, work and display their varied crafts in the street. All these Chitaris who have now adopted the non-traditional and easily saleable crafts such as artificial fruits, toys, masks, lacquered beads and charms and corkwood flowers belong to the traditional families once engaged in painting the Dashavatari Ganjifas popularly known as Hindu Playing Cards.
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The stern looking and upright Vetoba images have a fearful aspect and command great devotion in these areas. Often, the people in doubt and in need of moral and practical guidance would sit before the deity intensely observing the pattern of the leaves or flowers pressed on the breast of Vetoba. This procedure is called demanding "kaul" from God. The village guravs have an uncanny ability of interpreting the fall of pressed leaves and the devotees leave, highly satisfied that the God has spoken through his gestures. This charmingly naĆÆve reliance on a formal happening often frees the villagers from oppressive worry and intellectual speculation. It also proves a point that man with all his intellectual endowments cannot hope to unravel the entire mystery of life. In the social arrangement of a village the God is not just an impassive spectator but is treated as wise and as a living participant in the village.
These Vetoba temples as also others were decorated by the artists in a style related to that of the local playing cards. The Chitari artists mentioned earlier were also active mural painters and decorators of temple chariots. The paintings of mythological figures in the temples show three distinct styles. They can be classified as chitrakatha, the temple and the ganjifa style. The chitrakatha paintings which were similar to the Paithan paintings show a bold style with a tremendous amount of mobility of the figures. The temple paintings are very static and are usually depicted as a deity sitting on a stuffed mattress with a bolster behind it (Gadi and Takieh). The ganjifa paintings depict the ten incarnations of Shri Vishnu in an iconography which is stylized and typical.
Ganjifa is a word signifying playing cards or card games in India, Nepal, Iran, some Arab countries and Turkey. The Hinduisation of the Ganjifa themes must have greatly contributed to the spread and the popularity of the game.
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Sawantwadi Ganjifa vary greatly in size, quality and style. Large cards up to 9.5 to 10 centimeters in diameter. are for fastidious customers with elaborate figure cards and figurative numeral cards. These are known as darachitri - which means each card being painted with a figure of God or an Avatara seated in the centre of the card. It is said that brides of Maharashtra Brahmin families took these Ganjifas in their trousseaus wherever they went. Principal Sawantwadi Ganjifa Cards are ten suited 120 card Dashavatar Ganjifa and eight suited 96 card Moghul Ganjifa. The other ganjifas that Sawantwadi also produce are the nine suited 108 card Navagraha Ganjifa, the ten suited 120 card Musical Instruments Ganjifa, the twelve suited 144 card Rashi (zodiac sign) Ganjifa, the eight or ten suited bird or animal Ganjifa and the nine suited 108 card Dhanalaxmi Ganjifa.
The sizes vary from 3 cms. upwards to 10 cms. In the case of real gold and silver colour Dashavatar Ganjifa and Darachitri Ganjifas. Square Dashavatar Ganjifa and Dashavatar Ganjifa with an ivory colour background are in demand.
The original Sawantwadi cards that used to be made of thin layers of paper which in turn made them easy to handle, ard today lacquered. This produces a smooth, unsticky surface, the colours are bright and the designs of the card faces are functional as well as pleasing. The ground colours are invariably black, yellow, green, red and brown.
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The craft of painting the Ganjifa which had reached its zenith in the middle of the 19th century in design and craftsmanship was reduced to the level of jatra (mela) standards. Much later in the 1930's His Highness the late Rajabahadur Sir Khem Sawant V tried to promote this craft more seriously. It can be proved without doubt that this craft and this community of artisans flourished under the Rayal Patronage of the Rulers of Sawantwadi. In 1972 the late Lt. Col. Rajabahadur Shivram Sawant Bhonsle of the former ruling family and his wife Rani Satvashiladevi Bhonsle, took it upon themselves to revive the more sophistacated forms of Sawantwadi lacquer wares. In 1972 a brainwave struck the partners of Sawantwadi Lacquer Ware. A search was made for artists who knew the technique of Ganjifa making, An old man named Pundalik Chitari, about 80 years old was found who reproduced the forms from the old collection. Today the industry has been revived by the Bhonsles in a Palace workshop and produces goods mainly for export.