The word ganjifa comes from the ancient Persian word ganjifeh and refers to the round, hand painted playing cards used in card games by the Mughal emperors who first invaded India in the 16th century. Sawantwadi is the only remaining place in the country where the art of ganjifa painting is still practiced. Originally imported by visiting scholars in the 17th and 18th century, this art form flourished under the patronage of the royal family, the Bhonsles, who have presided over the kingdom of Sawantwadi for more than 400 years. The original Mughal style of painting was modified to incorporate Hindu themes, while painters from the neighboring Portugese colony of Goa contributed the floral motifs reminiscent of the decorative arts of Portugal and Spain. The happy marriage of these techniques and styles, encouraged by the patronage of the royal family, resulted in a flourishing community of artisans whose products, from ganjifa cards to home décor items, were in demand throughout the country.
Trained in workshops and schools founded by the Bhonsles, artists perfected the process of preparing wooden items, painting them by hand using water based paints in vibrant colors, and sealing them with a coat of clear lacquer. Distinct decorative styles emerged, each focusing on different subjects: Hindu gods and goddesses, floral garlands and bouquets, and representations of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. These themes, painted in vivid hues of orange, red or black, continue to dominate ganjifa art more than three centuries later.
Over time, ganjifa painting and the art of lacquerware in general fell into a decline so that by the early decades of the 20th century, only a handful of skilled painters remained. In 1972, the Rajabahadur Shivram Sawant Bonsle and his wife, the Rani Satvashiladevi Bhonsle took it upon themselves to revive the dying art of ganjifa. They engaged one of the few remaining master painters to train young artists in the ganjifa style and transformed the darbar, or audience hall of their palace into a workshop.
Gradually increasing their product lines and focusing on quality while strictly adhering to the traditional methods and styles of the art, the Bhonsles were able to build a market for this revived art form among collectors and art lovers, both in India and abroad. The organization now employs 7 skilled artisans who work painstakingly to create exquisite works of art while adhering to original ganjifa motifs and techniques. They take pride in the knowledge that they are preserving an artistic tradition that was close to extinction just a few decades ago.