Big brands like Ellusionist and Theory11 are well known for their contribution to the world of custom playing cards. But what about some of the smaller players in the playing card industry? In this series of articles we’re introducing you to some of the lesser known lights, which are nonetheless producing some shining stars in the world of custom decks.
The man behind Guru Playing Card Company (GPCC) is Sunish Chabba, and also part of his team is his friend and top Indian illustrator Ishan Trivedi. Sunish has a career as an Agile & Digital transformation consultant with experience in human-centered design. He is very familiar with the world of custom playing cards, and is respected for his positive activity in forums about playing cards and designing them. So let’s learn about some of the decks he has helped bring to collectors under his Guru Playing Card Company label.
Divine Art deck
With the help of Kickstarter crowdfunding, the very first design published for Guru Playing Cards was entitled the Divine Art deck.
The deck’s rather niche theme revolved around Hindu mythology, and depicted traditional imagery in attractive pastel colours, along with high attention to detail and ornamentation. This included decorations on the court cards that were inspired by traditional Henna Tattoos (Mehndi).
The Divine Art deck had gold gilding, and all the other extras you’d expect from a high quality limited edition deck, including a hot stamped gold foil on the card backs, and an individually numbered custom seal with metallic gold ink.
For a debut custom deck, it was a remarkable success, with backers consistently reporting that they were extremely pleased with the outcome.
Bharata Playing Cards – Series 1
The Bharata decks have their own pedigree, starting with the very first edition of the Bharata deck – Series 1, which was produced in 2017.
This is a high end deck of playing cards with all the extravagant trimmings you can imagine. When a deck comes with gold gilded edges as standard, you know that it is designed to look pretty!
This wonderful deck has intricately designed and vibrantly coloured card backs, and faces inspired by Indian royalty of old. Bharata is the original name of India, and these playing cards are an ode to the childhood stories of kings and queens that have become part of the history of Indian culture. They feature illustrations and artwork based on Indian folk art forms, courtesy of the fine work of Indian illustrator Ishan Trivedi.
The gold gilding matches the card backs beautifully, and complements the overall tone of the deck with welcome elegance. As beautiful as these decks were, not too many of them were ever going to see much usage on the card table or for card magic, due to their luxurious qualities – they are primarily geared towards collectors.
Bharata Tarot Major Arcana
After the initial Bharata deck came a follow-up, the Bharata Tarot Major Arcana deck. This was designed as a tarot deck, and only has 26 cards in total (22 Major Arcana cards plus 4 extra cards).
For me the card backs are even more lovely than those of the original deck, with a less garish look. There is a simple circular design that is instantly memorable. Yet there’s incredible detail, including patterned flowers and swan-like figures. And the colours – I am just smitten by the rich combination of reds, blues and purples, which come together in a palette that feels warm and luxurious without being overpowering.
The beautiful artwork on the face cards has a similar style to the previous deck, but now it occupies the full canvas of the cards. With poker sized cards and gorgeous full-sized art, it is highly attractive. Inspiration behind the images includes Kishangarh paintings and miniature paintings, and these really come to life when the borders are absent, and where all the attention is on the artwork.
Like its predecessor, the edges are again hand gilded for an extra touch of luxury, this time with an antique gold look. While not designed for intense practical use, it is another stunning deck from Sunish Chabba, and a highly attractive piece of art.
Bharata Playing Cards – Series 2
I was thrilled when Sunish subsequently produced a Bharata deck – Series 2, intended as an addition to the Bharata line-up that was a more workmanlike deck geared for normal use.
That’s not to say that Sunish took short cuts with quality. You only need to take a close look at the tuck case to see that this is a very stylish and sophisticated deck. It features some very vibrant and colourful patterns, reflecting the cultural heritage of the deck itself, which are set on a black background to help give it a more serious look. A silver foil border and silver lettering all adds to the look of real class, which is confirmed when our fingers rove over the box and notice embossing for that extra level of luxury.
On the inside is full interior printing – again with a silver foil pattern that exudes sophistication and style, and which looks especially regal with its black backdrop.
Once again I absolutely love the card backs, which take over the spectacular design and vibrant colours that we first saw on the Tarot version of this deck. The white borders help ensure that it isn’t over the top and remains functional, while the design is the perfect blend of being striking, simple, and detailed, with a wonderful combination of colours.
The faces of the cards feature customization wherever you’d expect it – first of all with the Aces, which have giant pips that have ornate decorations inside them. The Ace of Spades has an especially lavish touch that includes the name of the deck and the playing card company below it, and employs a traditional look inspired by the Asoka Pillar.
Along with the delightful tuck case and attractive card backs, the court cards are my favourite part of this deck. A lush oval border uses a different colour for each suit. Inside this framing are figures with a delightful and charming style that immediately sets it apart from a typical Western deck.
The court cards also have very clear, large, and functional pips and indices. The number cards feature similar customization, with very bold and plump pips that make good use of the entire card space and are printed very close to the edges for a very rich and full look to match the overall style of the deck.
The Jokers also feature two beautifully costumed characters with a one-way design, and there are also two extra gaff cards included to round out the deck.
The Kalevala deck represents a change in direction from the previous decks, all of which were based on Indian folk art and mythology. But like those decks, it still reflects an appreciation for the treasure troves waiting to be explored and enjoyed in literature and culture, in this case Finnish oral folklore and mythology.
Kalevala means “land of heroes”, and is the poetic name for Finland. The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland, originating in the 19th century, and was compiled and edited from oral tradition. It is an important cultural inspiration for the Finnish people, has been translated into about 50 languages, and is even said to have had a profound impact on Lord of the Rings author J.R.R Tolkien – and when you see some of the artwork on these playing cards, you’ll understand why!
This deck consists of entirely hand-drawn artwork, starting with the tuck box. The simple colour scheme helps emphasize the legendary roots of the tale that the deck tells.
The Kalevala poem starts with the traditional Finnish creation myth which describes the origins of the world, recounting myth and history all the way up to the introduction of Christianity. Some of the characters that inhabit this story include the old and wise leader Väinämöinen, a powerful seer who is master of the harp-like Finnish kantele; Ilmarinen, a skilled smith involved in forging the lids of heaven at the creation of the world; Lemminkäinen, the carefree adventurer-warrior and charmer of women; Louhi, the female ruler of the northern land of Pohjola, a powerful and enemy land in the north; and Kullervo, a hero tragically forced to be a slave from his childhood.
The court cards and Jokers are one of my favourite parts of this deck, because they depict these and other characters. All the names of all the characters featured in the deck are listed on an extra card included with the deck.
The card backs have a background that looks like antique parchment, with browned edges, creating an old world style which really contributes to the legendary feel of this deck, and is entirely fitting for a tribute to a national epic. The mono-coloured line style of drawing adds to this, and is strengthened further by the antique look of the background artwork on the card faces.
All four Aces have oversized pips, blending ornate decoration with a primitive and vintage feel, entirely appropriate for an epic. The number cards employ oversized pips that capture a style that harks back to playing cards from previous centuries, contributing further to the overall effect of an antique look.
The style adopted by illustrator Ishan Trivedi fits the thematic material perfectly. As a result this work has received high praise from Finnish natives who are familiar with the epic poem that is at the background of this deck. As proof of this is the fact that a copy of the Kalevala deck, along with a linen canvas print and the custom Väinämöinen’s Sword that were made in conjunction with this project, are now part of the educational collection at the National Museum of Finland.
Those who appreciate Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings will also find much to enjoy about this deck. Tolkien got the idea of a rescue by eagles from the Kalevala, and this is partly why the card backs feature this image. He was also inspired by Finnish and Nordic myths as the wider background to his Middle Earth.