Inside Tiny Matchboxes Lie Larger-than-life Stories 

Inside their tiny packet, matchboxes also house large stories.

3 min read
A matchbox with the unusual name, Guitar safety matches. (Photo Courtesy: <a href=";tab=page_info">Matchbox Memory)</a>

Can a thing, that costs just a rupee, have great aesthetic significance? There are times when the aesthetic and thrifty do intersect as any phillumenist will tell you.

By Gautam Hemmady’s own account, collecting matchboxes is an inexpensive hobby that has helped him learn a lot about the visual history of India, lending these tiny boxes reputable anthropological significance.

I’ve learnt a lot about the industry, its history and also about the various themes I collect under. I now know much more about old traders, about religion and mythology, about courtesans, even film.
Gautam Hemmady, Phillumenist

I recently happened to visit Gautam’s exhibition at India International Centre, that was aptly titled “Matchboxes and The Stories That They Tell”. Because that’s what they were, a treasure trove of stories.

Matchboxes as StoryTellers

Matchboxes are curious items. Inside their tiny packet, they also house large stories. Matchboxes were used as an advertising tool – brands like Wimco sold the available space on their matchbox covers to advertisers. Many matchbox covers also came etched with government messages and announcements, and sometimes even propaganda.

Matchbox covers (Photo: <b>The Quint)</b>
Matchbox covers (Photo: The Quint)
Matchbox covers with a public service announcement (Photo: <b> The Quint)</b>
Matchbox covers with a public service announcement (Photo: The Quint)

Hemmady notes that, like everywhere else in India, religion occupies prime space in matchboxes too. He highlights how, during the peak of the Swadeshi moment, matchboxes too put distinctly Indian tropes as matchbox art.

Ganesha covers on matchboxes. (Photo:&nbsp;<b>&nbsp;The Quint)</b>
Ganesha covers on matchboxes. (Photo:  The Quint)
Taj Mahal matchbox covers. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)
Taj Mahal matchbox covers. (Photo: The Quint)

But that was then. Now we have matchbox comics too. Yes! Kochin-based Studio Kokaachi packages its comics in six-colour accordion stories, each in a matchbox, suitable for reading across all ages.

Inside Tiny Matchboxes Lie Larger-than-life Stories 

Meanwhile, Art on a Box, an Instagram account started by Shreya Katuri, is a look at the stories behind Indian matchboxes.

Another blog, Matchbox Memory, is a delightful collection of matchboxes in superbly clicked photographs.

A matchbox with the unusual name, Hercules safety matches. (Photo Courtesy: <a href=";tab=page_info">Matchbox Memory)</a>
A matchbox with the unusual name, Hercules safety matches. (Photo Courtesy: Matchbox Memory)

But phillumeny, as the hobby of collecting matchboxes and other match-related items is called, still interests just a handful of people in the country. The industry’s bleeding prospects are only indicative of the fact that it may die soon.

About 8,000 units have shut down in the last decade and industry revenues have declined 25 percent. Low demand, the government’s exclusion of matchboxes from small scale export category, and competition from countries like Pakistan is only aggravating matters further.

Perhaps then it is more important than ever, to view these utilitarian objects as works of significance, that have always been representative of India’s present day visual narratives.

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