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The Chitrashala Press.

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The Chitrashala press was located in Pune (formerly known as Poona) in west central India in today's Maharashtra state where the Marathi language is spoken. Pune is a district administrative and commercial centre with automotive vehicle works and other factories. There are several palaces and temples from the 17th and 18th centuries dating from when Pune was the capital of the Marathas. Interestingly, Pune is also famed for being the original centre of the transcendental meditation movement. The name of the press is derived from the Marathi words Chitra (art) and Shala (school) and the most recent address of the print works was: 562 Sadashiv Peth, Pune-2, but, alas the press seems to have ceased business in the 1980's. Two important packs were printed by the Chitrashala Press, the first being a children's educational pack and the second a printed Ganjifa pack.

The Children's Alphabetical Pack

This pack probably dates from 1940 and is cheaply printed with some mistakes such as the inversion of the pip on the Ace of Hearts. The writing on the box is in Marathi and translates as "Picture Playing Cards" while below it says "Original (First?) Words". The two flaps on the box read "Pictorial" and "Presented to Children". Down the sides of the box is written "Alphabetical Cards" on the left while the right side reads "Playing cards". At least three different editions of the packs were printed; two with Marathi text and a third edition in Urdu.

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The Marathi Editions

The First Marathi Edition.

The pack has two objectives, namely a game for fun coupled with an educational aspect. As might be expected from an art school pack, the intricacy of the design couples with the teaching of reading and arithmetic in an overall pleasing fashion so that learning may be enjoyed. The basic pattern of the numeral cards is a central picture illustrating a word that is written in Marathi on the top right of the card while the letter with which the word begins is shown on the top left. On the bottom left of the card is a number corresponding to the value of a numeral playing card drawn in the bottom right corner but there are no Arabic number indices on the cards. The Kings and Queens (showing a Maharaja and a Maharani) of the black suits have different designs to those of the red suits but the Jacks (princes) are the same for all four. There is no central picture and the appropriate suit sign is shown on the top right. The Marathi letter, or letter combination, is shown at the top left and the letter and the number are printed in the opposing colour to that of the suit sign; a colour scheme, also present on the numeral cards, that considerably adds to the artistic balance of the overall design on the card. In addition, the court cards have the appropriate Roman letter i.e. K, Q and J printed above the playing-card possible for several reasons such as: to make the pack usable by non-Indians, to familiarize the players with European court cards or to teach some of the English alphabet.

The back design of the earlier Marathi editions shows a boy making a card house. The illustrations on the numeral cards show diverse subjects including boats, steam trains, rivers, fruit, animals and tools. It is interesting to note that the 2 of Diamonds features a maharishi perhaps reflecting the association of Pune and the origin of transcendental meditation and that the Ace of Spades shows a Zoroastrian fire altar. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion, originating in Persia in about 500 B.C., Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, was the prophet of Zoroastrianism who preached of the battle between good and evil in the world. The rise of Islam drove out Zoroastrianism from Persia in the 8th century A.D. The exiles settled in northern India where they are known today as Parsees. Now localized around Bombay, they do not worship fire, as is commonly thought, but venerate it as a manifestation of good or purity. It is Zoroastrians who give their dead "air burials" in which bodies are placed in "Towers of Silence" to be eaten by vultures so that there is no pollution of the pure earth.


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Four cards from the first Marathi edition


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The Second Marathi Edition.

A second edition of the Marathi pack was printed with new illustrations for the court cards while following the layout of the earlier pack. The major change was that all of the court cards were different for each suit by contrast to the first edition in which the black suits share the same designs with the red suits. The designs for the King of Clubs, Queen of Clubs, King of Diamonds and Queen of Diamonds from the first edition were retained for the second edition as was the design for the Jacks which appeared on the Jack of Hearts. The complete set of illustrations were also used for the Urdu edition albeit with some differences in the colouration. The back design is a floral pattern and this is the rarest of the Marathi packs. The inversion of the pip on the Ace of Hearts was not corrected.


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Five cards from the second Marathi edition


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The Urdu Edition.

The Urdu edition shares the same dual objectives of the Marathi packs. This pack might have been intended to be sold to a local Urdu-speaking population at the time of the printing in Maharashtra or beyond that region. One major difference between the Urdu and Marathi packs is that in the Urdu edition the letter and the name of the subject/object is written where space permits and not as in the format of the Marathi cards. The cards printed with Urdu text show characteristic features of the Muslim culture such as a mosque on the Seven of Clubs and a bear on the Two of Diamonds whereas in the Marathi version this is a maharishi or yogi. The court cards have the same images as the second Marathi edition but have different colouration and sky backdrop that is not present on the Marathi cards. The Ace of Spades features a bell and the playing-card lacks mention of the Chitrashala Press. The letter present on the Marathi court cards is also sometimes missing. There are differences on other cards as well, for instance, a ship is shown on the Eight of Clubs of the Marathi pack whereas in the Urdu edition it is shown on the Six of Hearts. Similarly, a duck is shown on the Marathi Six of Clubs and on the Two of Hearts of the Urdu edition. The Urdu Ace of Hearts shows a King, probably King Akbar who was the Moghul Emperor between 1556 and 1605, whereas the Marathi Ace of Hearts shows a kite and the figure 1. In the Urdu edition the Ace of Hearts has been redrawn with the correct orientation of the pip. There are other differences of this nature reflecting cultural differences. The other difference is that the back has a blue and white design within its centre the monogram C.S.P. standing for Chitrashala Press.


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Eight cards from the Urdu edition


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The Dashavatara Ganjifa Pack

In addition to the Children's Alphabetical pack, the Chitrashala Press published a very interesting chromolithographed 120 card Dashavatara Ganjifa pack. Prior to the publication of this printed pack, Ganjifa cards were hand painted, often with gold detailing, on materials that ranged from tortoise shell and ivory to stiffened cloth and layers of scrap paper. The pack published by the Chitrashala press is probably the first Ganjifa pack to be produced by modern printing techniques on cardboard, rather than the traditional methods, with the result that the designs are more finely detailed and clearer.

For those readers not familiar with Indian playing-cards, the following is a brief description of the Dashavatara Ganjifa pack and game. The cards are used to play a trick-taking game, with no trump suit, by three or four players. The Dashavatara pack is a Hindu version of the Moghul Ganjifa pack and has 120 circular cards divided into 10 suits representing the 10 Avataras or incarnations of Vishnu. In the Chitrashala pack the 10 suits, each named after an Avatara are: Matsya (the suit sign is a fish), Kurma (turtle) Varaha (boar), Narasimha (lion), Vamana (a water pot), Parashurama (axe), Rama (bow and arrow), Krishna (discus), Buddha (conch shell) and Kalkin (sabre). In each suit there are two court cards and ten numeral cards. The highest value court cards are the Rajas while below them are the Pradhans. The Raja cards show scenes from the Avataras in which the God, Vishnu, is shown in blue.


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The packs were packaged in a square cardboard box that has Marathi printing on the front and the lid. A sixteen page booklet on the Ganjifa game appears to have also been available. This booklet, written in the Marathi language and called Ganjifancha Khel (Game of Ganjifa), by Mr. Bhagwan Gangadhar Pande of Hivre, District Yeotmal (now in Maharashtra state), was also published by the Chitrashala Press. It seems to have been produced a little later than the pack of cards although no date of publication is given, it is assumed to be from the late 1950's or early 1960's. The booklet has an introductory note that translates into English as:

Introductory Note

The game of Ganjifa has been in vogue for hundreds of years. It was played during the time of the Peshwas. During the reign of Bajirao II, this game was brought to Vidarbha; primarily in Mahur Village of Kimwat District of Marathawada. There the king Udaram Jagjivanram used to play Ganjifa and he also taught Dashavatara Ganjifa to his staff and his family. From Mahur Village, the game came to Pune district.

At our place, our priest (guru) Shri Bhau Dev and Nan Dev and their father Vishnu Dev were expert players of Ganjifa. They taught the game to our grandfather, uncle and father. In turn we learnt the game from our uncle, the late Shri Bapusaheb Pande. He made us practice and learn the rules of the game and that is why I am fully conversant with Ganjifa.

One of my cousins, Shri Vinayak Rao Deshpande, lives in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa. He is highly qualified and works as a Reader in the State College of Arts and Commerce. He also learnt Ganjifa from us. I have given detailed information, as far as my knowledge goes, pertaining to Ganjifa in this booklet.

Bhagwan Gangadhar
Printer and Publisher,
Damodar Tryambak Joshi,
Administrator: Chitrashala Press,
562, Sadashiv Peth, Pune-2.

The booklet then goes on to describe, in the first three pages, the 120 court cards and numeral cards. The remainder of the booklet describes how to play the game.


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The Cards

The cards are 2 " in diameter and were originally produced in packs with either a black, red or white plain back. One notable feature of the Pradhan and Raja cards is that the lower segment of the design features the initials in Marathi: CHI SHA and PRE standing for Chitrashala Press. By contrast, the early painted packs might, in some cases, have been discretely initialed by the artist, the Chitrashala pack promotes the publisher in a prominent position of the card. This part of the design is in black, yellow and red and is separated from the upper part of the card by a thick red line (Patta).

The order of the Avataras puts Krishna in the Eighth suit, a combination that appears only in the cards of Sawantwadi and Sheopur in Madhya Pradesh. All of the Pradhans are shown riding on white horses while the Raja cards show scenes from the ten Avataras as follows:


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Dashavatara Matsya Suit

Vishnu emerging from the mouth of a fish. His body colour is blue and he is holding a Shankh, mace and khadga with the fourth hand holding the hair of the running demon, Hayagriva, who has a sword and shield in his hand.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Matsya


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Dashavatara Kurma Suit

Similar to Matsya but with Vishnu emerging from the mouth of a large turtle. The demon is running ahead of Vishnu.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Kurma


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Dashavatara Varaha Suit

The blue coloured Vishnu is shown with a boar's head holding a chakra, mace and sword in his hands. Clad in a brown dhoti and white dopatta, he makes a running attack on the demon Hiranyaksha.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Varaha


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Dashavatara Narashima Suit

Incarnation of Vishnu as a man/lion and shown enthroned and tearing up Hiranya-Kashyap with both hands on his knees.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Narashima


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Dashavatara Vaman Suit

Vishnu as the dwarf Avatara is shown on the left holding a chhatri in one hand with the other hand extended. Facing him is King Bali seated on his throne and in the process of pouring Ganges water from a water vessel on to Vishnu's extended hand.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Vaman


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Dashavatara Parashurama Suit

Vishnu is shown as the blue Martial Brahmin with bow and arrow attacking the Kshatriya King Kartaviya with his axe (parashu). The thousand-armed villain is crowned and clad in a reddish coat and yellow dhoti.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Parashurama


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Dashavatara Rama Suit

The hero God, Vishnu, is blue coloured and with both arms aims an arrow on his bow at the ten-headed demon, Ravan, shown with a white coat and brown dhoti with a sword and shield in his hands.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Rama


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Dashavatara Krishna Suit

The blue God is shown having a mace, conch and sword in his hands, aimed at the seated demon, Kamsa, who is shown in a brown coat and yellow dhoti.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Krishna


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Dashavatara Buddha Suit

The four-armed Avatara of Vishnu is shown in white and crowned, clad in a yellow and green dhoti with a conch and trident in his two hands and seated on a lotus flower.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Buddha


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Dashavatara Kalkin Suit

The Avatara yet to arrive shows a blue coloured God with four arms and a red dhoti. He holds a bow and arrow and a sword in his hands. There is a white horse with an umbrella over the saddle behind the God.

Ace, Pradhan and Raja of Kalkin



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Table of the ten suits, their colours and suit signs.

  Avatara of Vishnu Background Colour Border Colour Suit Sign
1 Matsya Red Green Fish
2 Kurma Red Yellow Turtle
3 Varaha Yellow Green Boar
4 Narasimha Dark Green Brown Lion
5 Vaman Dark Green Brown Water Vessel
6 Parashurama Brown Light Brown Axe
7 Rama Yellow Green Bow and Arrow
8 Krishna Brown Brown Discus (Chakra)
9 Buddha Black Red Conch shell
10 Kalkin Black Red Sabre