The legend goes that the 16th century Malla king Bir Hambir, who ruled over Mallabhum, which chiefly covers West Bengal’s Bankura district today, was a great friend of the Mughal emperor Akbar. On his visits to Delhi, he would be entertained by card games, which inspired him to create a version of his own. He conceptualised the Dashavatar cards, which are synonymous today with Bishnupur, the capital of the erstwhile Mallabhum.
The finely crafted cards depict the 10 avatars of Vishnu—Matsya, Kurma, Baraha, Nrisingha, Buddha (Jagannath), Baaman, Ram, Balaram, Parshuram, and Kalki. A particular family—the Fouzdars of Bishnupur—was entrusted with the task of crafting the cards and has kept the tradition alive to this day. According to another story, Bir Hambir (who ruled from 1565 to 1620) invented the Dashavatar cards so that he could have bloodless entertainment. Incidentally, Bir Hambir is known to have won a pitched battle against the Pathans, at the end of which he had reportedly sewn the heads of the dead soldiers into a garland and presented it to his kula devi, Mrinmayi. He converted to Vaishnavism after listening to a moving exposition of the Bhagavata tradition by a man he had started out to rob. The rise of Bishnupur as a centre of art and culture began under Bir Hambir, who constructed some of the exquisite terracotta temples with which the place is identified.
Sital Fouzdar of Bishnupur, now in his 50s, claims to belong to the 89th generation of the family. He has been making the cards in almost the same way as they were made around 400 years ago. Very few people actually know how to play them now, and the cards are chiefly sold as art, costing about Rs.5,000-Rs.8,000 a pack. The price can go up to Rs.15,000, but there are few takers in the domestic market. Sital Fouzdar says that the next generation is not interested in the cards and he might well be the last person in the family who knows how to make them.
The cards are made of old pieces of cotton cloth, pasted layer by layer and bound together with tamarind glue. The stiffened piece is stretched, dried, and cut into circular pieces, after which each piece is coated with a base colour. The delicate outlines and intricate curlicues require the master’s touch. Sital Fouzdar still uses natural, handmade colours for his cards. He is also an expert in making clay idols and makes a living repairing and repainting the damaged ones in old temples, which proliferate in Bishnupur. In his spare time, he makes the Dashavatar cards.
There are only seven players left who know the rules of the game. One of them is Ranjit Kumar Karmakar (70), who lives in Bishnupur town and runs a shop. His co-players are from the nearby villages. Karmakar says that he learnt the game 24 years ago from a player who had learnt it from a family member of the “last king”. He runs a free school at his residence where he teaches the rules to youngsters so that the game survives. In the last 10 years, he has got only three students: most of them disappear after the first lesson. “I cannot blame them since even my son is not quite interested in this game,” he says.
The rules of Dashavatar are quite similar to that of Ganjifa, the card game that probably came from Persia and was popular with the Mughals. Dashavatar rules are determined by the time of the day and the season: if played during daytime, the game starts with King Ram, at twilight with Lord Nrisingha, on a rainy day with Kurma, on a rainy night with Matsya, and so on. Each card is named after an avatar of Vishnu. It requires 120 cards, five players (with no partners), and five starters. Money can pass hands if the players so want.
Bishnupur fair is a fixture in the town, come December. Earlier, there used to be a hangout zone there for the Dashavatar card players. This is history, with all the players advanced in age now. Sital Fouzdar sets up a stall at the fair, hoping to sell his cards. In the last 10 years, he has sold only three sets, he says with a sigh.
Ashok Nath Dey is a Kolkata-based photojournalist with 34 years of experience. He has won several awards, including the Humanity Photo Awards (China) in the Education, Recreation, Sports & Technology Category in 2013 and the Friends of the Earth International photo competition (Netherlands), on the theme “Biodiversity Lost, Biodiversity Preserved”, in 2009.