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Designers: ‘Behind the scenes’ of Kings of India Playing Cards by Humble Raja



After a long hiatus of our designers series, we are honoured to have a guest post by the team from Humble Raja, creators behind the exotic Kings of India Playing Cards currently funding on Kickstarter. In part one of this two-part series, the team shares with us about the creative process behind creating a deck of cards, and how illustrations are finalised. The Kings of India project (to be funded on 17th August) will be used as examples in this article.

A name like Chandragupta Maurya may not strike a chord with many in the western world, but this heavyweight from ancient history was the founder of one of India’s most powerful empires. He is just one amongst the 12 legendary monarchs featured in our Kings of India deck, a project that began with a curiosity surrounding our history. [Back the project on Kickstarter]


We created the brand Humble Raja as a means to explore the fascinating world of Indian culture through design, with this deck being the first product. Let us introduce ourselves; we are Bhavesh and Reena Mistry, a husband and wife team from Montréal that operates the design and branding studio Apartment 4. Our backgrounds are in engineering and architecture, respectively, which gives us a unique approach to our creative work. Now with Humble Raja, we want to share bits of our culture with everyone through interesting mediums, as with our Kings of India deck. This is just as much a playing card project as it is a history and illustration one. Let’s go behind the scenes to take you through our creative process.

As newbies to the playing card world, we begun our research with the origins of the deck and how it came to be what it is today. A great resource was Sir William Gurney Benham’s book - Playing cards: History of the Pack and Explanations of its Many Secrets. It uncovers how the cards evolved from full portrait French characters into what most people recognize today as the modern, reversible British deck; and this is where we started our work.


Firstly, the standard structure of a playing card deck - four suits and a King, Queen and Jack for each, fit perfectly with introducing four royal families, or dynasties, with the Jack being a worthy successor. Seeking out the four greatest dynasties of India meant searching through a more than 2,400 years of history to the earliest known dynasties, a large task in itself. For us, the title of ‘greatness’ was reserved for those monarchs who showed extraordinary military strength, economic policy, religious tolerance, cultural advancements and left a lasting legacy; our top contenders being from the Maurya, Gupta, Chola and Mughal dynasties.

Finding the actual King, Queen and Jack of each dynasty proved to be a bit simpler as there were always a pair of rulers who shone above the rest. For the Mauryas, this meant our King was none other than Chandragupta, a fearless warrior who overthrew a powerful king to found India’s largest unified empire seen in its history (up until the Mughal empire almost 2000 years later). His wife Durdhara became our Queen card and their grandson, the great king known as Ashoka the Great became the Jack of Hearts.


A bulk of the time goes into design the court cards and it really helped to use the structure of the British courts as a way to guide our characters - from their orientation and composition to what they were holding and how patterns were used. As with any history-based project, we must rely on what had been documented all those years ago. With certain dynasties this meant there was a series of cave paintings and crumbling sculptures to go by whereas the Mughals had erected many monuments, documented daily life in the courts and commissioned portraits, making our job much easier.

Image credit: http://www.asianart.com/articles/markel/14_det.html

With each court card, we wanted to best represent the character by communicating what they would have worn, the weapons they adorned, their hair and clothing of the time, completed with patterns seen in sculpture and architecture. Our research was conducted by looking at artifacts, paintings, sculptures and even folklore written about these these kings. Take the Jack of Clubs for example, Chandragupta II; he was a military powerhouse who was credited with conquering over 21 empires over his reign; for this we decorated the Jack in military gear, outfitted with a set of arrows for a steel bow, a Gupta-era weapon notable for its strength and construction. Chandragupta II’s sash is finished with 9 gems, representing the 9 extraordinary members of his cabinet who excelled in literature, medicine, astronomy and medicine. The book he holds with him is a famous Sanskrit poem written by Kalidasa during the Gupta period.


Our illustration style comes from our intent to approach India’s culture in a new way; making our cards black and white goes against the common association of India with color, but it is not our aim to make this product look like it came from India necessarily. Using a single lineweight to illustrate this deck allowed the patterns and details to really shine through and added a level of simplicity to a detail-intense project.


The drawing process for us begins on paper. We first trace over a British deck court card and get a feel for the structure and elements of each card and start to adapt it to our character. We use an Art-o-graph light table to trace every iteration and it allows us to flip the card without having to draw it twice. We work collaboratively with each other, making sure to pass the drawing between us to get a second look at the progress. The drawing gets scanned onto the computer and traced using basic geometries in Adobe Illustrator. At this stage, we start to generate patterns and get the character to a certain level of detail.


Then the fun begins; we make print outs of these computer-drawn cards and start making tweaks by hand, over and over again until we are happy with it. We had an instance with the Jack of Clubs where it went all the way to the computer stage and ended up being scrapped and restarted because he just didn’t look right. We hope the efforts that went into this deck make your experience with it all the more beautiful, inspiring and memorable.

Kings of India Playing Cards is on Kickstarter until August 16th; a few days left for those who haven’t yet ordered their deck. The deck will be printed by the USPCC and encased in an intricate tuck, covered in gold & embossed illustration. We look forward to seeing them in your hands this December.

If you missed us on Kickstarter, be sure to sign up on our website humbleraja.com for a notification of when the decks will be available. This exclusive guest post is written by the team at Humble Raja for Kardify. No part of this article can be reproduced without written permission from the author. 

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