Picturesque matchbox labels

Matchboxes are not free, especially when you are a collector,” says Gautam Hemmady, whose exhibition Matchbox Labels and The Stories They Tell is currently on display at India International Centre, Annexe Building till June 3.

Hemmady started collecting matchboxes in 2012, and over the years has built a collection comprising 25,000 matchbox labels, of which around 5, 000 form the exhibition. The labels exhibited are from pre-Partition, pre-pricing era, from 1890 onwards.

He not only collects matchboxes and labels but also collects all information related to the labels including the time and where they were designed.

“Factories which make matchbox labels come under the informal sector. So it is very difficult to track the time from where it comes. Some factories still design labels which were available in 1930s. Most of these factories are in Sivakasi in Kerala and are transported from there on order,” Hemmady tells Metrolife.

He says that he wants to retrieve as much information possible on the labels, the factories, the artists and also the era. He wishes to later open a digital or physical archive of matchbox labels.

“I Google collectors of matchbox labels, email them and transact labels from them. Most of the times, people don’t share. There are dealers from whom you have to buy these labels. But I don’t go anywhere in particular to find these labels. If I am travelling or am on a holiday, then I'd go to different paanwalas to see if there is anything new that I don’t already have,” Hemmady tells Metrolife.

He says that dealers are aware that people like possessing some antiquities, and often themselves become collectors, only to sell them to other collectors. Hemmady says he got some labels from dealers in England and Sweden, who possessed some Indian labels from the time before independence.

Some collectors from across the country visited Hemmady’s exhibition and exchanged numbers and some labels. Some went with envy and some with contentedness. Hemmady says he is happy making other collectors jealous of his collection.

“There are many matchbox labels which are so common like Ship and Candle, I didn't want people to see those. I wanted people to see labels which they have never seen before,” Hemmady tells Metrolife.

According to Hemmady most collectors are not exhibitors, they want to hide their collection so as to not get stolen. Each of these labels’ value increases as time
passes by. Some labels he bought from dealers for Rs 10, 000.

In the exhibition, the labels are beautifully organised under tags of ‘Monuments’, ‘Bollywood’, ‘Freedom Fighters’ and ‘Courtesans’ showing corresponding graphics and visuals. The old hues with classic portraits, compels one to delve on the possibility of all of it being theirs. Would they have determinedly collected these pieces of paper, because they are beautiful.

“People do want to keep a collection of something or the other. I wanted to collect labels since childhood. But school, college, assignments, girlfriends, job come in my way,” says the 60-year-old collector.

Hemmady started collecting matchbox labels when he was in his late 50s. “I just went for a stroll in the evening on January 6, 2012 and from then I have been collecting every day,” he says.

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