Freedom struggle to Bollywood, these matchbox labels tell a story

  • Henna Rakheja, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 20, 2016 19:12 IST
A matchbox label inspired by Bollywood theme.

Power cut in summer? The desperate search for a matchbox in the house begins… The quest is guided more by an image on the cover of the pack, which stays in mind – ship, bicycle, Gods, Tricolour, and even Bollywood actors.

“Film personalities and films were promoted and advertised on matchboxes during the early 50s and Bollywood features quite regularly on matchboxes even today,” says Gautam Hemmady. The title of his upcoming exhibition, Matchbox Labels And The Stories They Tell, is self-explanatory.

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A set of 12 large matchboxes in a collector’s pack produced by Wimco. This set from the 1980s was sold as collectible souvenir from hobby shops and certain other outlets.

This collector of matchboxes opens his treasure trove at his South Delhi residence and what one sees is a collection of about 25,000 matchboxes. “This is not a big number as far as matchbox collections go but since I only collect Indian matchboxes, it is quite a specialised collection. The earliest labels I have date from 1890 and that is roughly when the Indian matchbox industry started.”

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He also collects labels, wrappers, bags, promotional material, books and catalogues. “I came to Delhi to study architecture in 1974 and settled here. Ever since childhood I wanted to collect matchboxes… But on one cold day in January 2012, I was walking and just began visiting every retail seller on my route. When I returned home, I had about 10 different matchboxes with me. That got me hooked and I’ve not looked back.”

A matchbox with an image of a performer on its label.

The exhibition will showcase his work and explore the prominent themes and major trends in the history of Indian matchboxes. Looking at a matchbox with a picture of Kareena Kapoor Khan on it, Hemmady says, “Of course, Bollywood has influenced matchbox designs and themes several times. It comes in waves in this ever-changing world and is very fascinating to follow.”

On display will be matchboxes that narrate the stories of early Indian merchants, religion, mythology art and architecture, kings and courtesans, advertising, imitations and the struggle for Independence.

These matchboxes feature figures redrawn from portraits that were commonly commissioned by the maharajas of India.

“Merchants had their names printed on matchbox labels as a form of branding or an assurance of quality,” says Hemmady, informing about the time when all matchboxes were imported. “When competition increased and exporters searched for relevant visual material familiar to people, they switched to religious art and architecture. The work of Raja Ravi Varma and his contemporaries, especially the depiction of Gods and Goddesses can be seen on the matchboxes from that time,” he adds.

Three labels from a set of four, showing a form of quality assurance from importers and trading merchants. This series is probably from the early 1920s.

Some matchboxes also have portraits of kings and courtesans. He says, “These personalities were printed by European manufacturers who found no shortage of paintings in India in the 20s and 30s. After which, the Swadeshi movement and freedom struggle is represented prominently on matchboxes between 1905 and 1947.”

A matchbox label with a patriotic theme.

All kinds of products have been advertised on matchbox labels. The theme is visible on matchboxes of the 50s to 70s. “During this time, government sponsored social messages and various promotions can also be seen on matchboxes. Another attractive theme for collectors is imitations. Successful brands have always been copied and imitated, and sometimes with very comical results.”

There will also be an album kept at the exhibition to allow visitors to view the history of India through the various matchbox labels.


WHAT: Matchbox Labels And The Stories They Tell, exhibition of matchboxes

WHERE: Art Gallery, India International Centre Annexe, Lodi Estate

WHEN: May 28 to June 3

TIMINGS: 11am to 7pm

NEAREST METRO STATION: Jor Bagh on Yellow Line

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