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From Amitabh Bachchan’s Coolie to Tata Nano & the tricolour — see India through a matchbox

Matchboxes are a blindspot for many, but if you pay closer attention, you'll see a showcase of India's vibrant culture in beautiful illustrations, no matter which 'brand' you pick up.

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New Delhi: From a depiction of Krishna-Arjun from the Mahabharat to a fisherman with his catch or the Tata Nano — labels on matchboxes in India, mostly discarded by the average citizen, are no less than a collector’s item.

One cannot find enough adjectives to describe the art on these labels — it can be downright bizarre (suited-booted monkeys talking over the phone), religious imagery of Hindu gods and goddesses, wildlife (lions, cats, leopards, cockerels — name an animal and you’ll find it on a matchbox) and everyday objects (windows, scooters, etc), all can be found displayed on these ubiquitous boxes.

They don’t leave fanfare behind either. If one box was found celebrating the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Coolie (1983), others featured actors such as Hema Malini and Juhi Chawla.

Then there are matchbox labels that commemorated important historical events such as Prince Charles’ wedding to Princess Diana. Nationalistic symbols like the tricolor, Ashoka Chakra and illustrations of freedom fighters were also depicted on matchboxes after India got Independence.

“Over years of noticing and collecting matchboxes, most common themes are animals, plants, birds, gods and objects of daily use like fans, radios etc. Some really cool ones I’ve seen have cars on them too. Others include numbers, some ‘lucky numbers’,” Mehek Malhotra, who dabbles in matchbox art herself and is the founder of Giggling Monkey Studio, a strategic brand design studio, told ThePrint.

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Evolution of matchbox art

Matchboxes were first manufactured in India in 1910 in Kolkata by Japanese immigrants who had settled down in the city. Residents soon learned the skill and small factories sprang up in and around the city.

Shortly after World War 2, production of matchboxes shifted base to Tamil Nadu, where the weather was dry and labour cheap. Today, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu is the leading manufacturer of matchboxes in India, and is also well know for the fireworks they sell.

South India’s dominance over matchbox label art is visible too. More than any Bollywood actor or actress, ThePrint spotted South Indian stars on various matchbox labels.

“Matchbox art was largely, like any other form of art, influenced by the region they were manufactured in. Some of the most unique ones stemmed from Tamil Nadu, with imagery of gods and kings, and intricate details made with stippling and shading through gradients. I personally love all matchboxes made with flora and fauna, with lovebirds and roses, having beautiful borders and irregular types (font) that adds to their beauty,” Malhotra added.

The matchbox labels also depicted the evolution of culture and societies with time. For instance, if some earlier matchboxes depicted ships, submarines or even a Rolls Royce, later ones had a Maruti Suzuki or a Tata Nano car, a metro train and a Honda Scooty.

The artists of these vibrant labels are usually anonymous and the matchboxes are produced commercially, with almost all costing Re 1.

“Art on the boxes is constantly being redefined. Earlier, during the national struggles, illustrations were more common but with the influx of technology and newer printing techniques, art on the boxes started getting digitised. While earlier you could spot illustrated/hand-drawn national flags or animals, now you can spot logos of modern day brands (Apple, Microsoft, etc),” Shreya Katuri, a Delhi-based artist who runs a popular Instagram page called Art on a Box, a project for documenting and digitising matchboxes from all over the world, told ThePrint.

Why Indian matchboxes stand out

The distinctiveness of India’s matchbox labels is arguably unmatched, even though it isn’t exclusive to the country.

“Like Indian culture, the art on the matchboxes is so versatile and rich in colours and context that we never run out of topics, from monkeys to flowers and vehicles. We keep it so vast and the possibilities are endless, the colours are more vivid and illustrations are more intricate,” Malhotra said.

Katuri, meanwhile, said Indian matchboxes are “closer to daily life, while the ones produced outside India mostly belong to restaurants, pubs and cafes”, so the expression and sentimentality is also limited.

“Indian art is a lot more pop, quirky and playful. From a limited foreign collection that I have (from US, Australia, a few from Russia and China), what I’ve noticed is that the majority of these foreign matchboxes belong to cafes, pubs, restaurants and hotel chains and have branding of the same on top. The Indian ones on the other hand have symbols and icons related to daily life,” she said.

So the next time you’re at your local paanwala or kirana store to buy a matchbox, take a moment to see what quirky design you’ve picked up.

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