A playing card collector focused on high quality, born in the Indian Himalaya region – visited by Fortune tellers, Sadhus and Holy men on a frequent basis – having a wide network of Indian Tarot readers and a fascination with divination from a young age. Sounds like the recipe for a great tarot deck if such a man would ever try to create one, right? I am not saying it isn’t, but Sunish Chabba’s first try at reaching out to the tarot community via Kickstarter with his Bharata Tarot failed drastically. However, he’s now able to offer you a tarot deck after all. And if you’ve always hoped for an Indian folklore inspired deck made by 2 Indians known for their quality, this is your review!
Sunish Chabba, Australian citizen and Indian born, formed his Guru Playing Card Company in 2016 to revive lost or almost forgotten traditional Indian arts, kick off the revival of old divination forms, and make them available & accessible to everyone. His first project was the Guru Ganjifa Card Game, sort of an Indian Tarot, released in the same year.
Art-foundation Bharata Tarot Majors Only
While working on his first tarot-like deck he came into contact with tarot readers from allover India: the seeds for Bharata Tarot were sown. With the knowledge gained from his Indian tarot friends, former playing card projects and revival-mission the Bharata Tarot took form quite quickly.
While the creator used the Waite-Smith for its pattern, the actual art – all hand drawn and finished off digitally by famous Indian illustrator Ashen Trivedi (see extra notes) – would encompass illustrations from different traditional Indian folk art forms and references to the 18th century Kishangarh style & miniature paintings (see table). Apart from classic ‘meanings’ that can be found whenever you go looking for WCS material online, the symbolism found in folk art forms has been used in each of the illustrations as well.
And, when I worked with the deck I realised that had a slight influence on the keywords used. But I’ll come back to that later. Let me first start with the unboxing part of the review. The Bharata Major Arcana Tarot ( Bharata is the ‘true name of India’) as the deck is fully named by Chabba and famous Asian designer Ishan is a quality deck when it comes to packaging and paper.
The art-background of the Bharata Tarot
Kishangarh painting emerged as a distinctive style in the middle of 18th century under the patronage of Maharaja Sawant Singh. Nihal Chand, a gifted artist in the Maharaja’s court, produced some highly individualistic Radha and sophisticated works.
The chief characteristics of the Kishengarh paintings were the elongation of human faces, lavish use of green and depiction of panoramic landscapes. Portrayal of Radha and Krishna in elongated faces is a common subject of Kishangarh paintings.
The elongated neck, the long stylised eyes with drooping eyelids, the thin lips and pointed chin of Radha standing in a graceful pose with her head covered with a muslin odhni, is undoubtedly the most striking creation of the Kishangarh school.
Nihâl Chand (1710-1782) was the chief painter at the court of Kishangarh during the time of King Savant Singh. His paintings capture the romantic and religious passions of his patron Savant Singh. He is known for his idealised depiction of the female form called Bani Thani.
A theory is that Savant Singh was very fond of Bani Thani’s eyes and kept sketches of this and there are two long poetic compositions by him on the beauty of eyes and it is this that Nihal Chand painted. The painted nayika of Kishangarh remains an important landmark in the history of painted women in Indian Art. At the same time, it is equally enigmatic and is, therefore, sometimes compared with Mona Lisa.
This was taken as an inspiration which Ishan illustrated it in his own style and can be seen most prominently on “The Lovers” cards in the Bharata Tarot deck.
Unboxing: blown away
The box is the smallest tarot box I’ve ever seen (discounting mini’s and tin version of course) and that is because not only it just holds the 22 Major Arcana (plus a LWB and 4 bonus Page cards), but the deck is printed in poker size (63×88 mm)! Making this tarot deck equal in size to a lot of the modern Lenormands. That comes as a surprise at first, but you’re soon over that surprise since the box simply screams for attention. Teal and turquoise peacocks sitting on a little green bridge against a navy blue background, a silver relief title and frame, with on the back of the box a wonderful blue-green mandala full of orange-red flowers & tokens surrounded by peacock tail feathers.
And if that wasn’t enough, the silver that is also used for the title and the framing of the Bharata Tarot cover extends into a silver plated pretty geometric pattern on the complete inside of the box. Top to bottom and even the flap. A box that might be a ‘simple tuckbox’, but seems rather strong carton at that. The entire design of the box, front, back and inside have been inspired by elements of Indian Rajputana paintings and architecture. Some symbols have been picked from Indian folk arts.
The text “Expansion pack” on the Major Arcana Bharata might evoke a ‘Huh?’, but that’s because in a way it still is… As said in the intro: Chabba initially went for a Minors Only Tarot deck in his 2017 Kickstarter (I guess his playing card background made that choice obvious for him since it is the other way around for (most) tarot designers), with the Majors as an add-on (expansion pack!), but could not get it backed. He relaunched the campaign with just the Majors and that did well enough at the end of 2017.
And that’s where the bad news comes in for tarot readers who would very much like to hear me say that the Minors pack got relaunched too. It was, but as a result of the earlier KS-disappointment all tarot influences were scratched from the deck. A limited edition run of 500 playing card decks with a sharper Kishangarh style will come out in September 2018. It’s cool, but you won’t be able to get a full tarot deck…sorry.
Back to the tarot deck at hand then… The quality I described when it comes to the box promises some luxury for the cards too and the Bharata Majors Only Tarot does not disappoint. It has one of the highest quality Casino grade European card stocks there are and you can feel it. I think the neighbours could hear me squee. Chabba speaks of a “unique and exclusive finish known as Ornate” and “linen like finish” and if that means it isn’t actually linen he could have fooled me. It looks and feels like it – shuffles like it. Regardless, this in-house stock by the Guru Playing Cards company itself made me happy.
And since gilded sides is tarot speak nowadays for: ‘I tried to make it the best and luxe;, that’s what you get on top of everything else. A muted gilded (and no transference, yay) this time, but gilded cards nonetheless. The backs of the cards show the same pattern as the back of the box, but weirdly the backs have a small white border where the imagery is all completely borderless. I thought that was a little weird and it was a small ‘meh’ in the otherwise gorgeous design of box and backs.
And what about that imagery. That too came as a surprise. Based on the art-style that formed the inspiration for this deck I had expected more angular lines, perhaps obvious paintings. But the Bharata Tarot has a very sweet vibe, a cute almost Disney princess-like feel to its artwork (especially if you check The Magician). That’s not to say it doesn’t look good, nor that it should not be taken seriously. But it will attract (probably) a mostly female and particular audience. An audience that prefers a softer style to its tarot and that does not mind the loud, colourful, animated figures, but can appreciate them.
The Waite-Smith pattern is obvious. Chabba set out to honour the most known deck in the world and he does that without damaging the theme he applied. The result is a ‘straight out of the box read’ for advanced tarot readers, and I think that relative novices in the WCS deck could start with this deck when they use the general Waite Smith study materials or otherwise use it as a second deck. All images are easy to recognise as the ones Pamela and Arthur laid the groundworks for, despite the fact they do not necessarily have all the same symbols, positions or even amount of people in them.
Indian themed differences
The Sun, for example, is a man dressed in Indian folklore garb with a huge moustachioed sun as a head. The Wheel is more of a Mandala with spokes and shows nothing else. The Hierophant looks to be a yogi holding a red glowing ball over his head and The Moon is a female version of The Sun-card. Death is a suited up fiery tiger with a scythe, whereas Judgement shows a shining shadow of Buddha with a man and woman underneath, their hands folded in meditation. These images are sometimes quite different from what we know from Waite Smith inspired decks. Still, they evoke the WCS, even when the image is further removed from the original.
Thats why, probably, the text in the full colour fold-out LWB (miniature pictures with a few keywords, some background on the deck and space for notes) is hardly a surprise. The World has keywords like fulfilment, succes and accomplishment, The Tower text says a sudden change destruction and revelation and The Hermit calls for introspection, solitude and inner guidance according to the little Bharata companion. All well-known keywords for the Waite-Smith (derived from the Pictoral Key by Waite himself).
Still, as said earlier, the slight deviations in symbolism and the inspiration for the deck do leave room for different interpretations (NB. I’m merely looking at the companion here, in relation to well known WCS-keywords for the WCS and those who read like that. Most advanced tarot readers already have their own interpretations of course, or don’t use keywords at all). The Lovers is a good example. The card purely shows just a couple in love and its Indian art inspiration is indeed a love story. There is no 3rd person – no 2nd woman, chaperone, minister or Lord – nor a chubby cupid. Therefore the companion also does not say Choice, but focuses on union & partnership. These are examples of art that give you a little more and a little variety.
The extra’s in art and symbolism is – luckily -what makes the Bharata tarot more than just a WCS with an Indian folklore theme. No matter how close to the core of the Waite Smith this deck is, it still has enough of its own character not to be just a Majors Only with a thin layer of Indian folklore, but with a true Indian character – just a cute-sy one. Chabba obviously did his research, helped by his Indian Tarot network, making this a grounded Majors Only. Designer Trivedi combined WCS and the folklore of his country into an accessible modern tarot version with a young face. It is sad Bharata enthusiasts won’t have a full 78 pack to play with, but this Majors Only is so easy to draw from as well it could provide a different kind of beginner’s play-deck: a good entrance to reading ‘European style’ = with just Majors for an in-depth look at (f.e.) character and lessons to learn.
The Bharata Majors Only Tarot might be too soft in style, too cute in art or simply too limited in cards to be loved by all tarot readers, but one thing is for sure: its easy blend into the WCS pattern and out-of-the-box read for all levels (tarot learning kids too), the amazing quality in stock and packaging still makes it a rarer kind of tarot bird. One that definitely deserved bigger wings than it got on its first flight into the Kickstarter/Tarot- community…
The illustrator Ishan Trivedi’s work has been appreciated by both Indian & foreign publishers. His book Boondi has received an Honorary Mention Award recently in the Unpublished Children’s Picture Book Category by the Global Illustration Award Committee at Frankfurt.