Despite being such a common occurrence in our lives–whether it’s to burn up a bit of wood or light the last cigarette in your box–something as basic as a matchbox is usually taken for granted. And when something is of such monotonous usefulness, ordinary people almost never analyse it. Artists, however, tend to find inspiration in the mundane, see what others might never notice. More interestingly still, few take note of the evolution in design over decades or the ingenuity of small imitation manufacturers, which actually provide a unique insight into the world’s socio-political scenario. In India, we’ve witnessed more than one ode to the indelible artworks that appear on matchboxes. One is Gitanjali Rao’s wonderful and personal short film, Printed Rainbows; the other is India’s only published matchbox collection by Shahid Datawala. Today, we’re all about the latter.
As the author of Matchbook–a compilation of 500 matchbox labels published by Tara Publications–Shahid shares in his book, “To some, match labels appear as so many windows to the world, linking them to real and imaginary geographies. Others consider labels as fulfilling an educational purpose–match labels, they claim, offer insights into commerce, culture, art, politics and attitudes. For almost all collectors, these labels appear to encrypt an early human fascination with fire and its possibilities: the matchbox thus becomes an almost primeval object, both indispensable and mysterious, and match labels are transformed into signposts that lead into an imaginative wonderland.” In conversation with Shahid, we gained a special view into the world of matchboxes across the Indian subcontinent.
While there are several matchbox collectors that have tens of thousands of labels, Shahid’s compilation is relatively smaller, so what makes his special? “It started a while back, in 1995-96. Primarily the whole collection started based on my observation of fake matchboxes,” he elaborates, “That’s what really inspired me, because there are thousands of people that collect matchboxes. The whole idea was to do something completely out of the ordinary.” Even though several official matchbox brands such as Ship and Homelite exist, these official logos and brand names have spurred a wide range of imitations across India, and while some of them are innovative and enterprising, some are just, well, outright hilarious. “My entire endeavour was to look for primarily fake copies of various matchboxes, and at the same time looking for a lot of graphics that were quite quirky and imaginative.” The quirkiness of these matchboxes are best reflected by the fact that some of these imitations use random words, with completely unrelated graphics. As Shahid explains, “All these matchboxes are made in small towns. So, for them, language is a very visual thing. If they see something, they don’t know what it really says. For example, I have a collection of about 55 copies of the Ship matchbox.” And, despite such obvious fake copies of existing brands, these imitation manufacturers stayed out of the purview of illegality, and found perfect loopholes in copyright laws as they never actually used the original brand name or logo. While colours, typography, and design overlapped, the brand name was always altered, much to our amusement today.
Shahid’s 500 matchbox labels that explore various imitations have been collected over almost eight years, from all across India. Small towns, urban cities, villages, rural areas–every kind of place you could think of. And, as most organic collections come about, Shahid gathered these labels through the course of his regular life, he shares ”[I collected matchboxes] whenever I used to travel. About 70 percent of my matchboxes I found were lying on the streets. I used to collect a lot because I traveled a lot all over India, many different places.” While these matchboxes made their way across India for Shahid to find, they all originated from more or less the same place in the South of India. “Most of the matchboxes come from Shivakasi, and the neighbouring small villages. These are all small scale industries, and they come out of one tiny cubby-hole. A lot of the graphic designers who actually design these things have these incredible portfolios of their own drawings and their own graphics. They’re quite amazing, I think they would give a lot of graphic designers in our city context a run for their money.”
While some matchboxes point to India’s socio-political scenario, such as the one designed with Chandra Shekhar Azad’s face on it, many are random imagery of everyday life, and a lot of them were actually advertisements for several products such as oils, soaps, make up and so on. As Shahid’s book divides these labels into different genres, we see transportation, household items, animals, symbols of nationalism, various versions of women and more. When you have a collection of 500 matchboxes, and the earliest ones date back to the 70s, you’re bound to trace some sort of pattern in the evolution of their design, “They were more formalized when it came to the design at that time, it was more structured. Then it started getting more experimental, more fun and more playful,” Shahid muses. He even shared one of his favourite matchbox discovery stories with us, “What really fascinated me was when I started collecting Ship matchboxes, I used to come across the most bizarre of words like Shib, Shop, Side, Skid, and I used to keep waiting, thinking that one day or the other I’m sure I’ll find Shit somewhere. And sure enough, I found ‘New Shit’ sprawled across a matchbox.”
As we flipped through Shahid’s fascinating collection, we realized that you can almost trace India’s history through the evolution of one of its most basic, accessible and rampant commodities. From a symbol of commercialism through advertising, and a sign of nationalist sentiment through ‘jai jawan jai kisaan’ graphics and the likes, to sexist designs and some positively hilarious pictures, these matchboxes stand for a whole lot of things in this country’s timelines over the last five decades. So, enjoy India’s one and only published book of matchbox labels by Shahid Datawala. You can even buy a copy here.
Scroll on for a small insight into Matchbook by Shahid Datawala.
Words: Rhea Almeida