After dinner, each day, the Sanghvis eagerly gather around a coffee table at their home in north London. The mother pulls out a coral-coloured, rectangular cloth piece from a pretty pouch of the same shade and spreads it on the table before arranging cowrie shells (kolas) and wooden pawns (kangis) around it. Her husband, teenage daughters and she go from being contemplative to excited, and even agitated, as they take turns to move the kangis from one embroidered square to another, across a snake-like grid, trying to outdo each other. Dull lockdown evenings have become thrilling after the family discovered Dadu, a traditional board game played mostly by the Dawoodi Bohra community in India. Dadu and Koladaan, another ancient board game, also keep Milan-based journalist Cristina Piotti and her buddies enthralled every weekend.
The Sanghvis and Piotti procured these games from a 61-year-old Mumbai resident. Sitting on a rug in the balcony of her Grant Road flat, Sophie Johari hand-embroiders 14 board games from different parts of India for clients across the world. Chaupar, which was favoured by Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (1542-1605) as well as the Pandava-Kaurava brothers, and Vagh-Bakri, which involves three tigers and 15 goats who play hunter and hunted, are among the games she has crafted under her brand SoSophie. She has also customised south Indian games including Thaayam, Pretwa and Tablan. A majority of these games are believed to be at least 1,000 years old and some of them are engraved on the walls of temples in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Johari hopes her work can help contribute to the revival of traditional board games, even if in a small way. As a little girl, Johari used to play endless rounds of Chaupar and Koladaan with her aunts and cousins at her grandmother’s home in Godhra during summer vacations. There used to be palpable energy in the room, which would even match or surpass the excitement seen during India-Pak cricket matches, as the teams rolled the little brown shells which served as dice. The games taught Johari to accept both loss and victory with grace. “This generation has not experienced the camaraderie and healthy competition as most of them sit alone and play games on their mobile phones. Even if they compete with other players, they don’t actually meet the person,” she says, adding that she showcased some of her games at a board-game fest, ‘Playing with the Past’, held in Mumbai last June.
Johari tailors her products to suit every client’s unique needs. So you may find one board of Dadu made with green Ikkat printed cloth and feather-stitch embroidery and another with cross-stitch or Dupion silk for a more formal look.
Each game board takes about a week to 10 days (roughly 15 hours) to embroider and stitch. The games are therefore expensive — a set of Dadu and Koladaan cost Rs. 3,000 — when compared to the machine-manufactured, cardboard/plastic games available in the market. Once in a while, Johari gets enquiries from potential buyers who haggle, but she is heartened to find that a growing number of people are now aware of the sheer hard work that goes into hand-embroidery and value this dying art. The tribe of hand-embroidery experts in India is dwindling as few people are willing to learn a skill which is so detail-oriented and time-consuming. Besides, the majority of embroidery work — even phulkari — is done by machines these days.
Apart from games, SoSophie also offers hand-stitched baby frocks and a range of embroidered knick-knacks including name plates, tote bags and comb cases. Johari’s unique gas cylinder covers with intricate motifs of flowers promise to make even the ugly contraption lying in our kitchen corner look pretty.
Though Johari always enjoyed needlework — she learnt it from her mother Fizza Jannaty who designed and tailored kidswear — she had never planned to pursue it professionally. In fact, Johari had trained to be a pathological laboratory technician. She used to spend her days testing blood samples till she had her first child. When her two daughters started attending school, Johari started giving tuitions and craft classes. But she continued to embroider in her spare time. Their home is full of her creations, be it cushion covers upcycled from old denims or quaint fridge magnets.
Then one day, three years ago, Johari’s younger daughter Aarefa asked her to craft a traditional board game. She wanted to gift it to a friend for her wedding. The newly-married couple loved the game and egged on by her two daughters, Johari shared a picture of it on Facebook. Within a day, she received 12 orders and her brand was born. Johari’s elder daughter Shirin helped design the logo and Aarefa wrote promotional write-ups for social media websites.
Initially, most of the clients were from their family and friend circle and mostly members of the Bohra community. But as word spread, Johari began to receive orders from people across ages, religions and cities “Families based in the US, UK, Dubai and Australia have bought my games,” said Johari with a smile.