The Indian matchbox: a telling element of our visual culture
While Big B has a fetish for pens, Quentin Tarantino is known for collecting board games. Similarly, Bengaluru-based illustrator Matt Lee, who came across a matchbox at a roadside chai stall a couple of weeks after he moved to the city from London in 2007, has by now built up a collection boasting of more than 600 matchboxes.”
As an artist and illustrator, collecting matchboxes is part of a wider interest that I have in documenting and categorising illustration and visual culture from around the world. The first matchbox featured an illustration of a killer whale with a caption above that read ‘dolphin’. I found this quite amusing, and kept it. Looking back, I think that my first connection with Indian matchboxes was that aside from being great examples of disposable design, they often seemed quite random, and made me smile and keep on collecting” he says.
On being asked about the reason for building a collection so vast, Lee says that it is the new design that keeps him going. He adds that across such a vast country like India, he can only ever have a fraction of the designs available. “So the series is never complete. Each new design I come across does not offer a resolution; but rather adds to the collection and the continuing story,” says Lee.
Interestingly, the matchboxes also signify personal memories for Lee. The visible ‘scars’ of the battered boxes tell a story, which according to him map the places he has visited, and the experiences he has had. He describes his collection as something which is ‘about design that is visual, tangible, yet personal and also somehow elusive and unquantifiable’.
“I often receive emails from people asking if I’d like to trade them, but it’s not about that for me. The satisfaction is in the process of building a collection that holds sentimental significance rather than material value. 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 amongst the narrow lanes behind the Ghats in Varanasi, eating fresh fish in Fort Kochi and many conversations with friends in Bengaluru,” he shares.
Lee, who says that he is attracted towards Rs 1 matchboxes, however makes it clear that he does not go out of his way to find or buy matchboxes; instead he prefers to stumble upon them. Talking about his favourite ones, he says, “From a purely design perspective I really like one that I came across in Jaipur a few years ago. The label shows a lit match on a deep blue background. I like the simplified graphic form, the balanced composition and the selective use of bold flat colour. It reminds me of the Priester poster designed by Lucian Bernhard in 1906.”