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Single or a few Indian hand-painted erotic playing cards are known to have occasionally appeared but this is the only full set of such playing cards in existence as far as we know.
The set is a standard 52-card deck plus two joker cards, making 54 cards in total. Each suit includes the usual ace, king, queen and jack.
Each card has been hand-painted with a different erotic scene. Occasionally, pandans (betel trays) and opium water flasks and trays are depicting alongside love-making couples, all against a mustard-painted background. The ladies illustrated all appear to have henna on their hands and feet, which might be a subtle suggestion on the part of the artist that the scenes depicted are part of each couple’s wedding celebrations!
The back of each card is also handpainted with yellow goblets, wine or opium water flasks and pink flowers against a green background. Ostensibly identical, the reverse of each has small differences due to having been painted by hand.
The set is a deck of playing cards but is also a set of 54 hand-painted Indian miniatures.
Each card is around 8.8cm high and 5.6cm across – this being the most common card size used for playing bridge (poker cards are wider).
It is likely that such sets were commission in the early 20th century for colonial clients and also Anglicised Indian aristocrats for their amusement.
Topsfield (2006, p. 101) suggests that European-style playing cards might first have been introduced to India in the 16th century by the Portuguese. The British and French also bought their versions of playing cards to India subsequently.
European-style decks of 52 hand-painted cards and two jokers were then produced in India itself. Such decks are known to have been produced in Sawantwadi in Maharashtra from around the mind-19th century Topsfield (2006, p. 102).
The set here has clear age and yet is in exceptional condition.
This is an exceptionally rare, museum-quality item.
Chopra, S., Ganjifa: The Playing Cards of India in Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banaras Hindu University, 1999.
Topsfield, A., (ed.), The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India, Marg Publications, 2006.