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Sital Fouzdar, Dashabatar, Pater Durga
Address: Shankhari Bazar, Manashatala
P.O & P.S : Bishnupur
Bankura 722122
Sital Fouzdar claims to belong to the 87th generation of artisans of Bishnupur who had started making Dashabotar Taash (cards) 1200 years ago under the patronage of the Malla kings of Bishnupur. 

The Dashabotar cards, an altered version of the Mughal Ganjifa cards in both content and rules, were introduced to the royal court of Bishnupur in Bengal, during the reign of the king Bir Hambir of the Malla dynasty who ruled Bishnupur from about 1587 to 1622. The circular Dashabotar cards, in a set of 120 cards,  carry motifs pertaining to the 10 avatars of Vishnu in each suit of 12. Played by five people, it was a source of royal entertainment for more than three centuries. The responsibility of crafting these cards lay with a single family of Bishnupur – the Fouzdars.  

47 year old Sital Fouzdar belongs to this family of traditional Dashabotar artists, who have specialized in hand crafting  these exotic playing cards since the 16th century.  Today however, the family is divided, with only two surviving branches who continue to uphold this craft.

Having lost his father as a young boy, Sital and his brothers learnt their craft from their late uncle, Bhaskar Fouzdar, who was a state awardee.  Another uncle was the famed Sudhir Fouzdar, recipient of the President’s award. Sital was only in class IV when he began his training. He first learnt how to with sketch the figures and it took him four years before his uncle would entrust him with painting a whole card and set.

The Dashabotar cards are a way of life with the Fouzdars and the making of the cards, a difficult and tedious process. Following in his uncle`s footsteps, Sital has taken it upon himself to pass on the tradition to not just his nephews, but also to the women in his family. Sital has studied up to class X, but 2 of his 3 nephews, sons of his elder brothers, are graduates, while a third is in his 2nd year. Sital and his brothers live under one roof and the entire family, the men and the women, all take active part in the family`s traditional craft, with individual responsibilities, being a function of age and ability. He has also taught through workshops and other such programmes, at least 400- 500 students.

Sitting in his workshop, a small room in a modest home in the Shankhari Bazar area of Bishnupur, surrounded by stacks of white circular boards ready for painting, unfinished cards, strips of cloth, jars of tamarind glue, coconut shells and plastic bowls full of natural and synthetic colours and other paraphernalia, Sital focuses on keeping alive this 400-plus year old tradition. He vows never to deviate from the legacy that has been passed down.  The only addition that he has made to the craft is a painted wooden box with a sliding lid (probably inspired by the Ganjifa boxes of other states), that is as beautifully made as the 120 Ganjifa cards inside. Earlier, they would be merely packaged in a cloth wrap.

While the traditional diameter of the round cards is 4.75  inches, Sital has been making them in several other customized sizes as well, ranging from 3” to 6”. The Fouzdars have also tried their hand at  creating rectangular cards, again inspired by the Ganjifa cards of Karnataka perhaps. However, Sital feels that the effort that goes onto the painting of the rectangular cards is not commensurate with the price received.  There is also another kind of card that the Fouzdars have been making  – the Naqsha cards, a game quite different from Ganjifa, requiring four players and comprising a 48 card set.

But the popularity of the game has long waned – a process that began with the appearance of the European machine printed cards in the early decades of the previous century. According to Sital, there are only a handful of old people who still play the game, probably having played with the last Malla king of Bishnupur, Kalipada Singha Thakur. Sital recalls how men from nearby villages would come up to his home and buy a pack of 120 cards from his uncle. This was in the early eighties and the price paid at the time could have been as much as Rs 800- Rs 1000 per pack (of 120), a pretty handsome price to pay for an old villager of the time. Sital later discovered that many such buyers would actually rent out these cards to playing groups in their village and thus recover their investment! 

Today, his buyers range from researchers, individual buyers and tourists, to online folk craft businesses. Most of his buyers tend to acquire smaller sets of ten avatar cards or mantri (minister) cards as curios – a practice that is encouraged by the artists in order to sustain themselves.  Sital, who learnt to play the game, quite late in life, offers to teach it to only those buyers who buy the whole set of cards. Museums where Dashabotar cards are found include the Bishnupur Museum (Acharjya Jogesh Chandra Purakriti Bhawan) and the V&A museum in the U.K.

Sital also paints the famed Durga-patas,  a nearly thousand year old Bishnupur tradition,where a Durga-pata is used instead of clay idols for the worship of Mrinmoyee (Durga). This Debi puja was established by the Malla kings in AD 994.  Sital and his family members also make clay idols for local pujas.

A recipient of the Kamala Devi  Puraskar in his youth, Sital has participated in exhibitions in major cities around the country. He does not take part in state fairs any more, for fear of losing customers at home. He participated in a workshop recently which featured Dashavatar craftsmen from across India – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha and West Bengal.

The family’s annual earnings, completely dependent on orders and visitors, range from Rs 50000 to Rs 2 lakhs. No wonder then that Sital fears for the future and while he hopes his nephews will be able to carry on with this dying tradition, he feels that a government job for at least one of his nephews, would be a source of great support to the family. To this end, he has approached many officials, but with little success. The writing is on the wall and unless steps are taken to increase the popularity of the game itself, it will be difficult to sustain this tradition.