Monday, August 11, 2014

Article in Business Line

We were featured in the 'BLink' of The Hindu's Business Line on 9 Aug 2014. The following well written article by Ms. Rashmi Pratap can be read online here as well.

Board games BC

Emperors sat engrossed in front of them, as did commoners, and now a handful of people are attempting to revive the centuries-old board games of India
The Chennakesava temple in Belur, Karnataka, is not just an architectural marvel on the banks of the Yagachi river, it is also a repository of more than 20 board games, played possibly by priests as well as temple caretakers in the 12th century and until much later. Similarly, at the Mahalakshmi temple in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, the grid of the game Sixteen Sepoys is clearly visible on a stone plinth. And in Varanasi, the gateway to salvation, board games can be found etched into the platforms lining the banks of the Ganga, as also inside numerous temples. 
From Pallanghuzi to Pachisi and Chaupar to Chaduranga, a range of astonishingly inventive games were played by emperors and commoners alike in the centuries gone by.
Yesterday once more: Traditional board games researchers RG Singh and Dileep Kumar of Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, Mysore, play a game of Dash-guti etched on a platform at Sheetla Ghat in Varanasi. Pic: Raghu Dharmendra
Today, a handful of people are attempting to revive these traditional board games of India. Whether they are doing it as a non-profit initiative or as a commercial venture, their motivation is the same — to familiarise the internet generation with these games and preserve this precious legacy.
“We have documented ‘board’ games inscribed on the floors of over 100 temples, mostly in Karnataka,” says RG Singh, honorary secretary at Mysore’s Ramsons Kala Pratishtana (RKP) Trust, whose hunt for traditional games has taken him from Orissa to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, other than the cave temples of Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal in his home State.
Long before TV or movies were even dreamt of, how did our forefathers spend their free time? After mulling over the question for years, in 2000, Singh, together with Dileep Kumar and Raghu Dharmendra of RKP, began researching in earnest. “One of the things they did was play ‘board’ games, inscribed in temples, houses... The next question was, ‘Can we revive them?’” says Singh.
While curiosity was the germ of the idea for the RKP trio, it was the close bond with their grandparents that led Dr Ramya Surapaneni of Spardha Games and journalist Vinita Sidhartha of Kreeda Games to introduce board games like Puli-Meka (Tiger and Goat), Mancala and Dahdi (Nine Men’s Morris) to the masses.
Games grandparents play
“My grandparents used to babysit my children and, despite the 80-year age gap, my kids enjoyed spending time with them. They played games that my grandparents played when they were growing up,” recalls Sidhartha. Around 2002, when she became tired of content writing, Sidhartha decided to make these games for friends and family. “I also made some pieces for sale and we sold out in the first week. That’s how Kreeda Games was born.”
For dentist Surapaneni — who specialises in smile designing, and shuttles between Hyderabad and Indore for work — traditional games held values for life. “Winning and losing, following rules, learning to cope with loss and being a sport are traits that video games and computers can’t teach children,” she says.
She used to visit her grandparents regularly in Nimmakuru, Andhra Pradesh. “We bonded over board games. I also encouraged my cousins to visit them during the holidays. That’s when I realised that traditional games were a great way of inculcating values apart from strengthening family ties,” she says. She founded Spardha Games in February, and has since launched four games.
Both Sidhartha and Surapaneni used their savings and help from family to fund their ventures. Today, Kreeda sells anywhere from 500 to 1,000 games every month, priced between ₹100 and ₹800. Spardha’s prices range from ₹800 to ₹25,000.
Road to revival
Each of these revivalists had to surmount several challenges along the way. “You need pawns and dice, the manufacturing process has to be understood and artisans have to be roped in to create the games,” says Singh. Given his experience at Ramsons, an established company in the handicrafts sectors, Singh was confident the games could be made by artisans. But putting it all together took almost five years.

Pray, play: The Chennakesava temple at Somanathapura, in Mysore district, has carvings of the Mancala board game; (right) the Adu Huli , or Goats and Tigers, game grid inscribed on the wall of a well at the Chennakesava temple in Belur. Pic: Raghu Dharmendra

“By 2005, we engaged with craft clusters across India. We visited these places, understood the manufacturing process, and designed the product based on the motifs and other inputs provided by artisans,” says Singh. This project took him to inlay craftsmen in Mysore, Kalamkari artists and wooden toy (Etikoppaka) makers in Andhra Pradesh, Batik artists in West Bengal, hand-weavers of Solapur in Maharashtra and Pipli appliqué artists in Orissa.
As the manufacturers of traditional games prefer natural materials over plastic, achieving scale and finding the right supply-chain partners prove to be major challenges. “Many games are played with shells. We decided not to use them to preserve biodiversity. We researched and came up with a substitute — paper powder. But another challenge was to ensure that the probabilities (of the dice throw outcome) did not change with the use of other products,” Sidhartha explains.
RKP does not produce more than 800 games a year as all the pieces are handcrafted. “We don’t want to use mass methods of manufacturing,” says Singh. The prices start at ₹300 and go up to ₹20,000 for large pieces like the Mancala game board with 14 pits in brass, which can also be used as a showpiece.
At Kreeda, the various parts — dice, pawns, boards, packaging material, rules pamphlets and so on — arrive from different suppliers. “Each element of a game is sub-contracted to a specific supplier. We assemble everything in our own office. Managing inventory is very tough,” says Sidhartha, even as she looks for new ways to streamline supply chain and inventory management.
While RKP retails its traditional games on a non-profit basis (it runs a successful business in Mysore selling saris and handicrafts), Kreeda and Spardha are just about breaking even. “Financial challenges remain, but it is passion that keeps me going,” says Sidhartha.
Aside from logistical and funding challenges, these manufacturers are hampered by the absence of uniform rules for traditional games. Every few kilometres, the same game is played under different rules and even a different name. So, for instance, Goats and Tigers is known as Adu Huli, Puli Meka,Baag Bok, Huli Kattu and Bagh Bakri among a host of other names. “Our researchers use the common denominators from all such games to make the basic rules,” says Surapaneni.
Appealing to GenNext
Efforts are on to make the games more contemporary. Kreeda has created a module that teaches maths using traditional games, another for executive training, and an educational aid for specially-abled children. Its three-series game based on the Ramayana familiarises children with the epic and its characters.
Spardha, meanwhile, is attempting to carve out a new market by reminding people of the games that were traditionally gifted during a marriage. “In South India, there is a tradition of gifting board games at marriages. We are trying to revive that,” says Surapaneni, who already gets about a third of her sales from marriage halls.
As things stand, the revival of traditional games largely remains an urban phenomenon. The buyers are mainly from the older generation as they are likely to have played them or at least heard of them. An emerging category of enthusiasts comprises IT professionals eager to reconnect with their heritage. “They have also created gaming apps for Tic-tac-toe and Nine Men’s Morris,” says Singh.
The games are also a favourite with souvenir hunters and corporate gifters. “Many corporates are putting in bulk orders for occasions like Diwali,” says Sidhartha.
In the meantime, e-commerce sites such as Amazon, eBay and Snapdeal have weighed in with their own brand of support. “We can’t get their reach. We can piggyback on them and reach out to a larger audience,” says Sidhartha. She recently sold a game to a buyer in a small town of Spain. “Anybody who learns about them wants to try them.”
Mancala in Spain? The game is certainly on.
(This article waspublished on August 8, 2014)