Matchboxes from the Subcontinent 

Walking around Bangalore city where I live, you come across matchboxes everywhere. Cheap and disposable, these objects litter the highways and footpaths and can often be found scattered around roadside chai stalls and cigarette kiosks. I came across my first matchbox not long after I moved to Bangalore from London in 2007. The label had an illustration of a killer whale with a caption that simply read ‘dolphin’ – to me this seemed quite amusing, so I kept it. Looking back, I think that my first connection with Indian matchboxes was that aside from being great examples of disposable design, the choice of visuals and text seemed quite random and this often made me smile.

Traveling across India I have collected over 750 matchboxes and each design has come to signify a personal memory. Collectively, the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places I have been and the experiences I have had. When I look at the labels I am reminded of many things; an early morning walk through Periyar National Park with my father and brother, getting lost with a colleague in the narrow lanes of Varanasi, eating fresh fish in Fort Kochi with my wife and many conversations with friends in Bangalore. New matchbox labels are printed all the time and across such a vast country, as India is, I can only ever have a fraction of the designs available. Since this collection can never be complete, each new design that I come across does not offer a resolution, but rather adds to the continuing story.

The visuals that adorn this collection include historical and religious iconography, Indian pop culture, appropriated western imagery, mundane objects, and many animals. The disparate meanings and juxtapositions created through this series of designs seems to encapsulate quite perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture of modern India.

Articles about this project can be read on Creative Review and The Hindu. In 2012 a selection of these matchboxes were exhibited in 'Collections' at Fictilis Gallery, Seattle, USA.


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