The Government of India launched the website of India Toy Fair-2021 yesterday, where the first virtual exhibition and events solely dedicated to Indian toys will be held from 27th February to 2nd March. A few weeks before that, Toycathon 2021, an inter-ministerial initiative was announced, inviting entrepreneurs to ‘conceptualize novel Toy and Games based on Bharatiya civilization, history, culture, mythology and ethos.’
Traditionally India has been home to several games, sports, activity toys and more, all of which have contributed to the country’s long list of cultural exports. Chess, in its current form, was first innovated and played in India during the Gupta Empire in the 6th century. From here it was taken to Persia, China, Europe and further ahead. In the last 1500 years, this war-strategy game has also journeyed from royal courts to homes to works of fiction, and popular culture. Recent Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit or the scene from Harry Potter wherein the lead characters play a replica of the Lewis Chessmen, originally discovered in Ireland, are a testimony to the popularity of Chess.
However, the tradition of play in India dates further back. Excavations at the sites of the Indus Valley Civilization unearthed pieces of evidence of toy carts, made by children or even by skilled craftsmen. The Skanda Purana mentions a game of dice between Shiva and Parvati. It is depicted in works of art, such as the one in Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA and through sculptures in Ellora and Jabalpur. While this is certainly evidence of games being regarded as a recreational activity, it may also hold deeper symbolic meaning. Perhaps it is Bhagavan’s lila where the dice is time, unpredictable and determined by the forces of purusha-prakriti represented by Shiva and Gauri. Or perhaps a reminder of the consequences that one’s zeal to win, (by hook or crook) could lead to. A message that was most intelligibly conveyed in Sabha Parva of Mahabharata. These episodes from itihasa-purana revolving around play can leave one with learnings and ponderance.
Indian-origin games and toys also give deep insights into the country’s culture. They inform us of regional lifestyles and the importance given to aesthetics, local crafts, all of which went in designing the physical form of the game – the play board, components, dice, dolls and figurines etc. The “boards” were made with wood carving, embroidered on silk or other textiles, and adorned with paintings styles from the region. One can also find games etched on temple floors and walls as well. Similarly, the making of dolls and figurines, tell us about the various crafts of the country that have been practiced by artisanal communities for generations. For instance, in Nutangram, a few hours away from Mayapur in West Bengal, the art of making Gour-Nitai dolls–representing Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Prabhu Nityananda, with their outstretched hands–was introduced in the 15th or 16th century and has been continuing since then. Krida Patram, a card game (perhaps the first-ever to be played), also had depictions from Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Dasavatara, intricately painted on cloth, shells etc in local art styles. The game traveled from India to Persia and even Nepal, and later became popular as Ganjifa. While in today’s time, Ganijfa cards are made of various easily available materials, apart from cloth, they continue to be decorated in local art styles. In this sense, games and the play-act, have been instrumental in promoting and preserving artisanal skills on one hand and imparting folklores, history and spiritual learnings on the other.
Moreover, the Indic tradition of games was also reflective of the centrality accorded to science, strategic thinking and value-based learning in the social culture. Chess originated in the 6th century, a time of great discoveries in the field of mathematics and other sciences. Carrom, another game, believed to be of Indian origin sharpens the understanding of geometry and angles. Similarly, Pachisi, Chaturanga or Lau Kata Kati, some of the earliest strategy games, introduced various elements of war such as formations, warrior moves, developing wit and taking risks. On the other hand, there were games like Mokshapatanam (reduced to present-day Snakes and Ladders) that taught about living a virtuous life, or Aadu Pulli Attam, commonly known as Goat and the Tiger, that highlighted the spirit of teamwork. Another important aspect was the ability of Indic-games to communicate about deeper realities of life. Perhaps the act of play within the confines of the board was a way of informing about the limited space and availability of resources at a person’s disposal; the more or less fixed duration or moves in a play conveyed the importance of taking calibrated actions, and the dice reminded of the randomness or uncertainty that prevails even in the most calculated situations, so one needs to be prepared for whatever comes in the way.
While Indian-origin games are deeply rooted in the country’s cultural ethos and values, they also hold universal relevance and are of course a great source of recreation. For this reason, the games have traveled far and wide from India to Southeast Asia, Africa, Persia and from there to Europe and to the rest of the world. While some of these games–Ludo, Snakes and Ladders and Chess–continue to remain popular, although devoid of their learnings, many other games have ceased to exist. Reviving Indic-games will not only add an innovative and cognitive dimension to learning but will also support in sustaining crafts forms of the country. In this direction, it becomes important to think of innovation, prototyping and increasing the online as well as the offline presence of these games. More crucially, India should claim intellectual property of these games, before they are taken away from this land completely, re-packaged and brought back in reduced forms. The India Toy Fair and Toycathon 2021 are welcome initiatives in this direction, that could pave the way for India’s toy sector to grow, and eventually lead to a resurgence of more meaningful, valuable and enriching activities of play finding a place in homes and schools once again.
Feature Image: Ganjifa cards from Rajasthan (c) LACMA