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Games and Sports in Indian Art

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A special exhibition on ‘Games and Sports in Indian Art’ has been hosted by the National Museum drawing exhibits from various departments of the Museum.

India has a rich heritage of games, sports and other recreational activities. The history of games and sports in India is almost as old as the Indian civilization. Games have been instrumental in improving physical and mental health of players besides inculcating a competitive spirit. Games also provide amusement and relief from boredom.

The spirit of competition and sportsmanship transcends barriers of caste, creed, race, culture, nationality and geography. The Commonwealth Games, like the Olympic Games, is one of the best examples that illustrate this point.

Excavation of Harappan sites have unearthed objects like bullock cart, wheeled toys, game boards, dice and toys including rattles for children. The Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina scriptures describe games such as cart and chariot race, hunting and acrobatics.

Chaupar is used for gambling which finds mention in Mahabharata in the context of Yudhisthira and Pandavas and Nala Damayanti as also in the memoirs of Humayun and Emperor Akbar. Stone images from Ellora show the divine couple, Shiva and Parvati, playing chaupar.

Many popular games in the world such as chess (known as chaturanga in Sanskrit), lotto, snakes and ladder, playing cards (ganjifa) owe their origin to India. The earliest chess pieces found in India belong to the Kushana period. Cowrie shells were also used in place of dice in many rural areas. Originally, chaturanga had four players. Around 6th century, chaturanga went to Persia and the Arabs altered the Sanskrit term from chaturanga to shataranj.

Chandal mandal was a popular game invented by Emperor Akbar according to his chronicler Abul Fazl.

European game of Lotto was developed and patented in 1850 from another indigenous board game called pachisi. This became a popular game in Bengal in the 19th and early 20th century. Eventually, it travelled to Syria, Lebanon and Middle East and South Asian countries. In Burma (Myanmar), it was known as Pasit. In Nepal it acquired the name Tripasa. And, in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), it became popular in the name of Pachici.

The Chinese travelers Hieun Tsang and Fa Hien described weightlifting, garden sports and water sports of India in their travelogues. Buddhist texts talk of polo which was called pullu in Tibetan language.

In 1135 AD, King Someshwara wrote a treatise on Manasollasa in which he deals at length with Bharashram (weight-lifting) and Mall-stambha (a form of wrestling). Mallkhambha or the gymnast’s pole was in use for a long time in ancient India. Mallkhambha was revived by Maratha ruler Peshwa Bajirao II in the 19th century after it went into oblivion. He also refers to Udyana Krida or Garden Sports and Salila Krida or Water Sports.

Wrestling was a popular sport in India. The great epic Mahabharata sings praise of Bhima’s wrestling skills when he faces Jarasandha. A pre-Mughal Persian text discusses 360 wrestling tricks in Gulistan. Shahjahan was fond of this sport and Agra Fort was a popular venue for wrestling bouts.

Traditional training grounds for wrestlers known as Akharas and Wrestling Champions called Pahalwaans have survived to this date. The chief of an Akhara is addressed as Guru and the presiding deity of wrestlers in India is the monkey god Hanuman who is also addressed as Bajrang Bali which means embodiment of strength.

Gando-Makkal-Pala is a form of wrestling that is popular in northeast India. Indian freestyle wrestling is called kushti or dangal and is fought wearing just the loin-cloth known as langot.

Polo was a hot favorite with Rajput royalty and even ladies took part in this game. Akbar is believed to have invented fiery balls (illuminated balls) with which Polo could be played at night. On the walls of Jahangir Palace in Orchha, there is an early 17th century artistic rendering of Polo or chauganbazi.

Rural hockey (Dhopbari) played with a crooked bamboo stick and rough ball in West Bengal is believed to have evolved from polo or chauganbazi.

Archery has been a popular sport since time immemorial. It is still popular in tribal belts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Meghalaya. Hero of the epic Mahabharata, Arjuna, is still considered to be one of the greatest archers of all time.

Combat sports between animals and birds of the same species were also popular in India. Emperor Akbar and the Indian aristocracy are known to have pitted elephants, tigers, deer, leopards, camels, boars, bulls, rams and other wild animal against one another of the same species. The common man, however, had to remain content with ram, pigeon and cock fights.

In recent centuries boys have shown great interest in games like kite flying, mock-fights, blind man’s buff and simply climbing trees. Other sports that people went after were swimming, boating, sword play, disc and javelin throw. Kabaddi was a popular sport introduced by Mughals that continues to enthrall rural youth in India. Boys and girls have always been fond of toys. Dolls have been the most sought after toys for girls.

For the innumerable games and sports that have their origins in India, the artistic representation of these are few and far between. This special exhibition on Games and Sports in Indian Art is an effort to put together the best of art works produced on Indian sports.

The objects displayed in this exhibition cover the period from Harappan Civilization to the present day. Exhibits include small terracotta toys and rattles found in Harappan sites; paintings depicting wrestling, polo, swimming, fencing, weight lifting, archery, kite flying, chess and chaupar.

Chaupar, chess spread, chessmen, wooden toys, dolls, yoyo and silver lattoo are some of the objects that have been borrowed from the department of Decorative Arts. Gold coins, swords, shield, bow and arrows etc. have come from Anthropology, Arms and Armour, Numismatics and Central Asian Antiquity departments. A few objects have also been picked up from the department of Pre-Colombian and Western Art.

In a nutshell, this special exhibition is a concerted effort to pool together treasured items relating to Indian sports in various departments of the National Museum and present it under one roof.

Indian artists and sculptors have captured and given expression to sporting moments in a variety of ways and mediums. Representative samples from the National Museum collection of objects relating to Indian sports were specially handpicked for this occasion and displayed as a special exhibition on the first floor.

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