An architect by profession, Gautam Hemmady always wanted to collect matchboxes for the interesting designs and artwork they carry. He finally began doing so on 6 January 2012. He remembers the day precisely. He says, “I was feeling quite cold that day so I decided to take a walk. I stopped at a paanwala and bought a matchbox. The design was new and the paanwala and me ended up chatting about matchboxes and the different kinds of matchbox labels. He enlightened me about the place I may get different matchboxes from. That’s how it all started.”
Hemmady’s exhibition takes you through a range of matchboxes labels. In his collection you can see matchboxes with labels of courtesans, kings and princes; labels showing figures of Tilak and Gandhi; or varied symbols of monuments, religions, mythologies, art and advertising. His fascination and curiosity with matchbox labels led him to many other collectors and traders. “Usually I collect the material through a barter system,” says Hemmady. “If I need a new piece which some else has, I trade that in with the extra matchbox label I have. It works on the principle of give and take.”
Kadambari Chintamani, a visitor to the exhibition shares with Guardian 20 her experience of the show. She says, “It is a fantastic show. The mind of the collector is fascinating, one can’t ever understand. I love the way he has categorised it. He has given the information that allows you to walk through and understand what these matchbox covers were trying to say at a given period of time. I am really moved by the show.”
Hemmady, after over four years of being a collector, can now be called a phillumenist, the technical term to describe someone who collects matchboxes.
This endeavour of his has taken him to various places, familiar or unfamiliar, over the years. “I collect matchboxes in a very organised way,” says Hemmady. “I read about the collections on the internet and explore who has what in terms of what I need in terms of matchboxes. Then I talk to the colletors, beedi vendors in specific areas who now know me, antique dealers, merchants who trade matchboxes and so on. It is important to find the source from where I can get the material. The themes as well are very significant to me as I can categorise them later.”
“One day, I stopped at a paanwala and bought a matchbox. The design was new and the paanwala and me ended up chatting about matchboxes and the different kinds of matchbox labels. He enlightened me about the place I may get different matchboxes from. That’s how it all started.”
Hemmady for his collection also dealt with some foreign traders using the barter system. “My first question to them is what they want from India?” says Hemmady. He explains, “There are various overseas traders who are interested in specific things India has and which is not easily available in their country. Sometimes they want things that touch upon themes of religion and mythology. They are interested in materials like posters etc. If I can give them those they trade with me some matchbox labels which I happily collect. The practice of collecting matchboxes never gets tedious for me.”
Hemmady is a highly focused kind of collector. He seems to work pretty hard at it. He says, “I have read many books on the subject and have met many people for the same. The process is also easier for me as I am an experienced collector. I have collected many things in the past like clocks and watches, tools and instruments, things made of glass, stamps, keys, but all these things never became a collection because I did not work at these for long. Though I started collecting these things, I gave up on them pretty early.”
Not so for matchboxes. For collecting these, he visits different markets in the region, especially the Naya Bans area in old Delhi and Hisar in Haryana.
“We have a fix brand for everything,” he says, “when I was growing up, I could see a brand fixed for every item we came across. For example, there was Polsons brand for butter, Ambassador or Fiat for car and few others. But there was a new brand for matchboxes everytime I looked at it, which got me really interested in the labels.”
This was Hemmady’s first exbhition of matchbox labels, entitled Matchbox labels and The Stories They Tell, which concluded on 3 June at Delhi’s India International Centre.