Three years ago, when Delhi-based Shreya Katuri began taking her final year journalism dissertation seriously, her friends’ families believed she’d become a secret smoker. What else were they to think, considering her sudden passion for matchboxes? This had to mean more than simply the fact that her dissertation was about matchboxes as part of popular culture.
Today, with 900+ matchboxes and labels in her collection, Katuri laughs when she remembers having to deny a cigarette habit. Now the people she knows are just as keen as she is to add to her collection. Her sister even went so far as to risk an accident by leaping out of a car mid-ride to pick up a matchbox on a footpath, and her friends were given the side eye by a restaurant waiter for inquiring about matchboxes on the premises. All these matchboxes are now displayed on her Instagram account,@artonabox.
Tales of a nation
Katuri’s collection is not as offbeat as you may think. Though it isn’t as popular as philately (stamp collecting) and numismatics (coin or currency-collecting), phillumeny (matchbox collecting) is a legitimate hobby worldwide, complete with fanatics who will spend millions if they feel they need to add to their collection. In India, Katuri is one of many phillumenists, including Delhi-based Gautam Hemmady — who was bitten by the matchbox bug in early 2012 and now has 25,000 matchboxes, labels and covers — and Chennai-based Rohit Kashyap, who has been a collector for over 30 years, beginning from when he was in class 5. He now has 80,000 matchboxes, labels and covers from 108 different countries.
What’s so hot about matchboxes, though? Well, for one thing, they’re an expression of popular art. And for another, they commemorate events that will eventually go down in history.
Certain themes run strongly in the art on the boxes, for example, animals. Tigers, elephants, lions and cockerels are the most popular choices for matchbox art, the first three because of mythology, the last because rural areas and certain sections of cities abound in roosters. “They are such a common image that designers adopt them as an easy symbol for matchboxes. This might be how symbols get carried forward,” explains Katuri.
Hemmady’s collection is split into 10 to 12 themes, including trading merchants named on old labels, old Indian factories, religion and mythology, monuments, royalty, courtesans, advertising, films, the freedom struggle, and so on. The oldest matchboxes in his collection date back to the 1920s, while his label collection goes as far back as 1890.
Meanwhile, Kashyap has a matchbox commemorating Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding, another from Air Force One, the official aircraft of the President of United States, and a third from George Bush’s Presidential Ball. He even has one issued by the US Reward for Justice campaign (a counterterrorism rewards programme set up by the US Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service), with Saddam Hussain’s picture on the cover so that Iraqis could identify him when he was on the run.
Aside from art and commemorations, matchbox collections tell the story of a country’s ideas: what it thinks about nationalism, for instance, or religion, gender, and ideologies. For example, a common matchbox cover during the freedom struggle had ‘Bharat Mata’ imposed on an outline of India’s map. “Imageries like these give rise to discussions of a certain dominant right-wing sentiment being carried forward,” says Hemmady. Baby iconography was popular too, with pictures of infants on labels.
Tracing these labels back in time, Katuri realised that there were more pictures of boys than girls. “I have a picture of a boy posing with a cricket bat stuck in my head. He was on a label with the word ‘winner’ next to him. This kind of image sets certain standards in society,” she explains. Similarly, cricketers, farmers, and doctors on matchbox covers and labels are all male figures. And while both male and female Indian celebrities feature on matchboxes in equal measure, female actors are skimpily clad, while male actors are in suits and have a heroic vibe, says Katuri.
The designs on matchboxes have always reflected the times they were produced in, including production methods, printing technologies, the economy and events. The earliest Indian matchbox labels were more or less copies of what foreign manufacturers were producing. But the effect of the partition of Bengal and the Swadeshi Movement is clearly visible on matchboxes in the form of the use of the word ‘Swadeshi’, at first in English and later in several Indian languages. The two World Wars were largely ignored, but the freedom struggle is visible in the form of personalities, symbols such as the charkha and the early Congress flag, and even a few protests. There was also more use of Indian languages, and war shortages were reflected in the poor quality of the materials.
“After 1947, there is some celebration of the Indian flag and symbols like the map and Ashok Chakra,” observes Hemmady.
But a little later, advertising of all kinds of products reflected industrialisation efforts, the growth of the small sector, the promotion of government programmes, among others. The growth of the paper industry showed in the switch from wood to cardboard matchboxes, and advances in technology are clear in the print and design quality.
Most fascinating are the labels of the 19th century: beautifully drawn and very well-printed. When the need arose to produce labels that the Indian consumer could relate to, images of gods and goddesses, and scenes and characters from mythology were used, mostly copied from the paintings of artists like Raja Ravi Varma and his contemporaries. There were also photographs and portraits of royalty and other famous personalities, and drawings and sketches made by artists of monuments, bazaars and rural life.
“Label art was initially more associated with our traditional definitions of art – more elaborate and intricate. Later, after Independence, the imagery got associated with products, and then came ideas associated with globalisation,” says Katuri. Now, you find logos of multinational companies like Pepsi and Microsoft printed on boxes.
“Imitation is another important phenomenon right through the history of matchbox art,” says Hemmady. One symbol we’re all familiar with is the diamond logo with the name of the manufacturer within. “When The Western India Match Company was set up in India by the Swedes, they placed the word WIMCO in a diamond,” explains Hemmady. This symbol was then copied by nearly all other match companies.
Keeping a secret
While phillumeny isn’t madly popular, collectors all over the world are active on the Internet, especially on social media. “I like discussing my interesting finds with people, and they’ve become like friends to me after I connected with them on Instagram,” says Katuri. Kashyap, who had stopped collecting for a while, began again thanks to encouragement he received from fellow collectors on the Internet.
But while there’s much camaraderie, collectors can also be competitive, and reluctant to share sources or information. Thus, awareness about matchbox collecting is low, says Hemmady. “Very little has been researched and published. Information is not easily available and dealers don’t support it in any way. Still, phillumeny survives; even thrives in its own little way,” he says.
Did you know?
* In Japan, Teiichi Yoshizawa was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s top phillumenist. In Portugal, Jose Manuel Pereira published a series of albums to catalogue and display matchbox collections called ‘Phillalbum’.
* The first matches were made of white phosphorus and were so highly inflammable that they were kept in steel boxes (also called match holders). After the invention of red phosphorus, matches became safer and the prefix ‘safety’ was added to the boxes.
* Collectors discard the matches when they find boxes they like and need. The matchbox covers are dipped in hot water so the glue comes off, and then flattened and stored.
* The first matchboxes in India were made in Calcutta in 1912 by Japanese traders.
* Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, is the largest producer of matchboxes in India.
From HT Brunch, March 26, 2017
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