Wednesday, November 29, 2006

St Bernardino of Sienna in 1423 is reputed to have described the playing cards as an invention of the devil ‘in which various figures were painted, just as they are in the breviaries of Christ, which figures show the mysteries of evil’, and set them ablaze in a bonfire in Bologna. The Church may have been discomfited by the fact that a large number of its scholars were indebted to Arabic sources of knowledge, through Spain and Montpellier, and ‘alchemy’ posed a threat to the Church’s worldview, as much as it did to orthodox Islam in its Sufi guise.

When the Renaissance did erupt in Italy it was fuelled by of hundreds of alchemical and magical Greek texts – many of Alexandrian origin that had been preserved by the Byzantine Empire during the period of the Roman Church’s persecution in the West. These were the same texts that Caliph Mamoun had got translated in his Academy of Wisdom.

When the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453, fleeing refugees sold many of these texts to Cosimo de Medici, then the Lord of Florence.Among them was the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ written sometime in the 1st or 2nd century AD, but at that time attributed to an ancient sage called Hermes Trismegitus. This was full of alchemical recipes, rules for the invocation of planetary deities, steps on the transmutation of metals, and how one could transform fate through magic etc.

For a while, this material along with works of Plato were translated into Latin, and for a brief while ‘alchemy and magic’ came out in the open in Florence and other Italian city states. The first mentioned record of tarots available is in Ferrara where account books record orders for Tarot packs in 1452, 1454 and 1461, and it soon became popular with other nobles in Milan etc. Marsilio Ficino who translated these texts became enamoured with what they suggested: “man is a magnum miraculum, a great miracle: a creature worthy of worship and honour. For he shares in the nature of God as though he himself were God. He shares the substance of the daimones, for he knows he has a common origin with them.”

“The world of images for Ficino – whether of myth or dream, were a middle ground between the world of imageless ideas and the world of matter. The planetary images for him were the bridge between worlds, through which the individual can slowly unite ‘what is below with what is above’”: (L Greene)

“Hence such Images would become forms of the Ideas, or ways of approaching the ideas at a stage intermediary between their purely intellectual forms in the divine mens and their dimmer reflection in the world of sense, or body of the world. Hence it was by manipulating these images in the intermediary ‘middle place’ that the ancient sages knew how to draw down a part of the soul of the world into their shrines” (Frances Yates)

There is no evidence of the church persecuting the cards as heresy though in the 16th century alchemy became heretical and Bruno Giordino was burnt at the stake. The worldview of alchemy resists the idea that humans are contaminated with Original Sin and can only be redeemed through the Church. On the contrary, man is a proud and noble-cocreator in God’s cosmos and by his efforts reunite body and spirit so they are not always torn apart.

By 1528, the inventory of the engraver, Francesco Rosselli, reveals plates for printing a number of games – the game of the truimph of Petrarch; the game of Apostles with our lords, the game of seven virtues and the game of planets with their borders.

The origin of playing cards is then best left to the imagination – could playing cards have travelled from India to Egypt in the years before Europe discovered the sea route? A 10th century Arabic text by Muhammad bin Umail – called ‘Senior Zadith’ in earlier latin translations, more recently translated by the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1927- refers to stories he had heard of an Indian climbing the pyramids.This document also refers to Hermes the Babylonian, keeper of the Mercury temple, buried in Cairo (Misr), who was named after the Chaldean Hurmus! In more recent years Amitav Ghosh has demonstrated the links between India and Egypt through old documents, but we are back to a puzzle without end, except that we know that astrology and alchemy, like playing cards, had many enthusiasts, and travelled across many borders and religions…

Perhaps we could begin with Harran, known to have been continuously inhabited from the 3rd century BC to the 13th century AD. According to Al Biruni, Harran was first dedicated to the moon because it resembled the moon in shape.On the banks of the Euphrates,in modern Turkey, it was a trade centre for metals and seven metals (based on the seven planets) were used to construct temples for invoking cosmic powers.

“So many references to Harran, either under its own name or in the classical guise of Carrhae, occur throughout the length of Mesopotamian, Roman and mediaeval Arab literature, that it has acquired a strong historical personality of its own”(S Lloyd and W Brice)

“the Harranians were, as the Christians called them pagans,viz.a community who had retained a mixture of Babylonian and Hellenic religion,over which there had been superimposed a coating of Neo Platonic philosophy” (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics)

“From Harran, alchemy spread to Egypt”, says H E Stapleton, who says Harran “continued till the 10th century AD to be the last outpost of Sumerian, Hittite and Babylonian civilisations”

Reading the Ain-i Akbari and the Akbarnama gives me a clearer sense of how deeply rooted astrology and alchemy were in the mediaeval world view , whether in India or westwards through the Middle East and Europe and my guess is the ‘four ways’ refer to the four elements as understood by astrology and alchemy.

Ain-I Akbari :
“ The Creator by calling into existence the four elements has raised up wonderful forms. Fire is absolutely warm, dry, light; air is relatively warm, moist, light; water is relatively cold, moist, heavy, earth is absolutely cold dry, heavy” Examples like this can be found extensively through the texts. Another reference that recurrs frequently is to ‘Jamshed’s cup’ that reveals the secret of the seven heavens, and could well be the source of the ‘suit of cups’ in the Tarot

“ In the same year (991) his Majesty built outside the town two places for feeding poor Hindus and Muhammadans, one of them being called Khairpura and the other Dharmapura…As an immense number of jogis flocked there, a third place was built which got the name of Jogipura.His Majesty also called some of the Jogis and gave them at night private interviews, inquiring into abstruse truths; their articles of faith; their occupations; the influence of pensiveness; their several pracices and usages; the power of being absent from the body; or into alchemy, physiognomy, and the power of omnipresence of the soul.His Majesty even learned alchemy, and showed in public some of the gold made by him”

The passion for astrology in later times is attested by Bernier who published his travelogue in 1684:”Most people of Asia are so infatuated by Judiciary astrology, that they believe there is nothing done here below, but’tis written above (for so they speak.) In all their undertakings therefore they consult Astrologers. When two armies are ready to give battle, they beware of falling on, till the Astrologer hath taken and determined the moment he fancies propitious for the beginning of the combat. And so when the matter is about electing a Captain General of an army, of despatching an ambassador, of concluding a marriage, of beginning a voyage, and of doing any other thing, as buying a slave, putting on new apparel, &cnothing of all that is done, without the sentence of Mr Stargazer ; which is an incredible vexation, and a custom drawing after it such important consequences, that I know not how it can subsist so long: for the Astrologer must needs have knowledge of all that passeth, and of all that is undertaken, from the greatest affairs to the least”(The History of the Late Revolution of the Dominions of the Great Mogol)

The Akbarnama also refers to abjad – the employment of 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet as numerals and seven of the letters allotted to each element, the art said to take its name from Jafar Sadiq, the 6th Imam, though Henry Beveridge the editor adds: “no doubt the art is much older and was in great vogue among the Jews” (as Kabbala)…
In 751 in Samarqand the secret of paper making was taken from some Chinese prisoners and in 795 a paper factory was established in Baghdad.

Idries Shah mentions that one of Haroun al Rashid’s companions were the Barmenicides, earlier, keepers of the Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan, and he says the Sufi tradition as it developed and moved to other centres like Moorish Spain, kept drawing on this legacy.

In the 8th and 9th century, the entire scientific and philosophical legacy of the world was being rendered into Arabic : medicine, natural sciences, astronomy, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy, alchemy and magical texts were being studied in a bureau of translations under the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad.
The caliph Mamun was responsible for the translation of Greek works into Arabic. He founded in Baghdad the Academy of Wisdom, which took over from the Persian university of Jundaisapur and soon became an active scientific center. The Academy's large library was enriched by the translations that had been undertaken. He entered into relations with the emperors of Byzantium, gave them rich gifts, and asked them to give him books of philosophy which they had in their possession. These emperors sent him those works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy which they had. Scholars of all races and religions were invited to work there. They were concerned with preserving a universal heritage, which was not specifically Islamic and was Arabic only in language. The sovereign had the best qualified specialists of the time come to the capital from all parts of his empire.The Encyclopaedia of Islam also mentions the influence of two Indian sources: the Brahmasphuta Siddhanta of Brahmgupta (628) which was brought to the court at Baghdad in 771 and was used as a model in Arabic by Ibrahim b Habib al Fazari and Yaqub b Tariq; and the treatise of Aryabhatta, composed in 500, from which Abul- Hasan al Ahwazi derived his tables of planetary movements.As Joseph Campbell puts it: “the light of Hellenistic learning had been quenched for Europe when, in the year 529, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered the schools of pagan philosophy closed in Athens. The only remaining repositories of Greek philosophy and science then were Sassanian Persia, Gupta India and Ireland, the one flickering candle in the West…(till) Baghdad became within a few decades the most important seat of classical learning in the world”

Monday, November 27, 2006

The exhibition was designed by Sujay Narayan. Photographs by Jugal Debata, Ranjan Palit, Ranu Ghosh, Satyajit Pande, Mishti Palit, Sujay Narayan and Vasudha Joshi

history of the cards

In 1966, Michael Dummett wrote “The Game of Tarot”, a history of playing cards and the Tarot in Europe. There he concludes: “the overwhelming probability, then, is that, in about 1370- 1375, playing cards came to Europe, very likely through Venice, from Mamluk Egypt, where they had been known for some time. The etymological evidence suggests that they had reached Egypt through Persia, just as Chess had spread throughout the Islamic world from Persia, whither it had arrived before the Muslim conquest. From this point in the trail however, the evidence becomes patchy”. This conclusion is based on the discovery of a 15th century Egyptian Mamluk set discovered in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Istanbul. The set, consisting of four suits, Swords, Polo Sticks, Cups and Coins and three court cards: King (malik); Viceroy (naib); and Second Viceroy (thani Naib). The four suits are identical to the four suits in the Tarot pack, though it is now usual to refer to the sticks as wands or batons.

There are several other European references he draws on- an inventory of possessions drawn up by her son at the death of the Duchess of Orleans in 1408 mentions ‘a pack of Saracen cards’; inventories from Barcelona that attest to “Moorish playing cards” and the 15th century ‘Chronicles of Viterbo’ that say: “In the year 1379 there was brought to Viterbo, the game of cards, which in the Saracen language is called ‘nayb’.

Idries Shah in his Book ‘The Sufis’ says “Naib is an Arabic word meaning ‘deputy’… or substitute material, forming an allegory of the teachings of a Sufi master about certain cosmic influences upon humanity. This is divided into four sections, called the turuq
(four Ways), the word from which ‘tarot’ is undoubtedly derived…the pack as it stands today, is only partially correct…this error has been caused by a mistranslation from Arabic of certain words”. .”The Spanish still call playing cards naipes.

The earliest recorded playing cards are Chinese and there are several references that give AD 969 as the earliest certain date for Chinese playing cards. Could ‘ganjifa’ have originated from China? Could China – the land in which paper was invented- be the source for playing card games in the world ? The Colliers encyclopaedia on Books says: “From its introduction by the Moors, who had forcibly wrested the secret from the Chinese, papermaking moved to Italy , to cater to a rage for card playing, among other things. A public eager for ‘images’ – souvenirs of events and shrines…was rising on every side”.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The research for the exhibition was funded by India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore. Two exhibitions were sponsored in Kolkata in 2004 and 2005 by Sasha and Birla Academy of Art and Culture

Ganjifa – a local note Rudolf von Leyden who did seminal work on Indian ganjifa wrote in the “The Naksha Game of Bishnupur and its implications” (The Journal of the Playing Card Society, Vol vi, no 3, February 1978) that he could not accept ‘ the Indian origin of these cards for the following reasons: 1 mode of manufacture : The cards are printed on cardboard in black from wood blocks and probably stencil coloured...This kind of manufacture of cards is entirely unknown in India and would point with a large degree of certainty to Europe’ The naqsha cards are not printed on cardboard or stencilled. They are
made from boiling tamarind seeds and then mixed with cotton fibre and then coated with a clay that is local to Bishnupur to make the base and then they are hand painted. In fact the process appears to at least go back to mediaeval times. Alberuni ( AD 973 – 1043) ( Sachau, Volume 1, p 171) : Alberuni describes a slender tree like the date and coconut palms (which are distinct from the corypha and Borassus palms), “bearing edible fruits, and leaves of the length of one yard, and as broad as three fingers, one put beside the other”. Experts like Hoernle conclude that an error in transmission was responsible for the edible fruit as they were no such palms in existence at that time. The answer may be
simpler than expected. The error may be attributed to the etymology of tamarind called ‘date of the east’ in Arabic and the assumption that we are talking of some kind of palm tree, when in fact the process of making the base in Bishnupur looks closer to Alberuni’s description of paper in India, and accounts for the edible fruit.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A cd on the exhibition is available for rs 300 and so are two booklets : 'Cards' (rs 30) and "Dasa avatara" booklet (rs 70) Cheques or DD's can be made out to Tarana Publishers, 2nd Floor, 189 Sarat Bose Road, Kolkata 700029

Names and Addresses of Ganjifa artisans in India:

West Bengal: Bansari Fouzdar
Sankari bazaar
Dist Bankura West Bengal 722122
Tel No: 03244 254124

Sital Fouzdar
Sankari bazaar
Dist Bankura West Bengal 722122
03244 255740

Orissa: Gangadhar Maharana
PO Chandanpur
Dist Puri
Orissa 752012

Loknath Mahapatra
Maharana Sahi
Zilla Suvarnapur

Sawantwadi Lacquerwares
Sawantwadi 416 510
Tel 02363 72010

Andhra Pradesh:
Narasingham Busomi
Nirmal Toy Industries
Andhra Pradesh