While this column has focused mainly on the pleasures and pains of joystick-wielding gamers, there is now an imminent need to focus on the worldwide resurgence of interest in board games (or ‘analog games’, as they are now termed). Kolkata has already been responding to this new trend with board games in cafeterias (there was even a board games cafe here briefly) and toy stores, with a range of global board games and gaming events. The city has, however, come up with something even more unique: an exhibition of old board games by collectors.
‘Kolkata Koto Katha’, an initiative by bric-a-brac collectors of the city, organised a rather unique exhibition called ‘Khelar Ekal o Shekal’ (the past and present of games) last month. The exhibition focused on all kinds of games, game magazines or brochures (for example, the first issue of the Sportstar magazine or the programme of the 1945 IFA Shield match) and even matchboxes that had a games-related theme. Be it rare books on board games, Santhali toys, a strange round bagatelle board or the beautiful Ganjifa cards from Odisha and Bengal, the collectors had brought them all to the exhibition.
Apurba Kumar Panda, senior civil servant, also an avid collector and the curator of his very own museum of everyday life called Tarar Chhayay, displayed his pasha or chaupar boards together with the ivory and wooden men and the rectangular bone dice. He also possesses unique versions of the Bengali variant of snakes and ladders or Gyan Chaupar, also known as Golok Dham. As the visitor tries to work out his karmic journey on the Golok Dham board (Sri Ramakrishna commented on the game’s representation of the Hindu cycle of rebirths in his Kathamrita), right next to it is displayed the more mundane Bengali version of Monopoly. Now virtually impossible to find, the Notun Byaboshai (New Businessman) game was quite common even a couple of decades ago. Panda’s considerable collection notwithstanding, he is not exclusively a collector of games. Other collectors brought their rare sets of Ganjifa cards. Originating in Persia, the round cards come in suits of 120 or 96 and in mainly two variants, the Dashavatara and the Naksh. The rules of the game are complex and almost forgotten and the cards themselves are rare; not all sets are complete and they come from Bishnupur in Bengal (where the Foujdar family still makes them), Raghurajpur in Odisha and other parts of India.
Moving on from the Ganjifa to the European playing cards, there were numerous decks arranged in showcases. Various kinds of chessboards, the game of snakes and ladders on advertisements and toys such as tops, shuttlecocks, bagatelle boards and cowrie shells from bygone days were all on display. It’s a unique event: civil servants, cancer research scientists, journalists and amateur and professional collectors brought their life’s collections, sometimes encompassing entire sections of the hitherto neglected ludic (‘relating to games’) history of India.
Rather strangely, despite having such a rich ludic culture and being a country where many games have been invented, India does not have a museum of games and objects related to play. As far as board games are concerned, most of the research has been done by scholars from outside India; the trend, however, is seeing a change. Not from the academia or the government, but from the quotidian lives of common people and also some startups that have woken up to this lacuna in our cultural lives, there are now some initiatives to save our ludic heritage.
An exhibition of games and play by the collectors is a start, and one hopes that hallowed organisations such as the Indian Museum (with its rich collection of games and toys, including those from the Indus Valley Civilization), the Victoria Memorial Hall, the Gurusaday Dutta Museum (with its complete collection of the Bishnupur Ganjifa cards) and other museums from all over the country will also come together to showcase the rich heritage of games and play in India.
Just before leaving the exhibition, someone pointed out an item on display — an Autobridge. Dating back to 1938, this game allows one to play bridge by oneself through a mechanical device and slides. Before the arrival of the digital solitaire, now on almost every computer, this was a game that showed the shape of things to come. In an age, where the risk of losing our cultural assets is so great, let there be more exhibitions such as this one.
The writer is an avid gamer and game theorist who teaches English at Presidency University
Source: Times of India