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Ever seen the Hindu Gods Shiva, Vishnu and Hanuman as well as Indian Goddesses Kali and Saraswati on the labels of matchboxes? And that too matchboxes made in Austria, Sweden and Japan?

When matchboxes made their first appearance in India just before the start of the previous century, they had labels in vibrant colours, with pictures that made them appealing to the average Indians.

Thousands of attractive labels of virtually all the matchboxes imported to or manufactured in India since then are on display at the India International Centre here, revealing a rich history for over a century.

“Sweden was the largest producer of matchboxes when they started being mad”, explained Gautam Hemmady, 59, an architect by profession who began collecting matchbox labels in January 2012 and now sits on a mammoth pile of matchboxes.

According to him, Sweden had mastered the technology of making matchboxes along with Austria and Japan, and India was an attractive market as the demand was huge but the production was zero.

One of the first importers of matchboxes from Austria was an Indian company, A.M. Essbhoy of Calcutta, now Kolkata.

The earliest matchboxes, Hemmady stated, cost about a paisa. Many had non-religious labels such as a clock, three tigers, cow’s head, elephant, two deer, axe, scissors, lamp, horse, plane, tea cup and a key.

But at some point the companies in Sweden, Austria and Japan decided that the better way to woo the Indian buyers would be through religious motifs.

Thus, matchboxes from Sweden had labels of – the spellings then were mostly different – Hindu Gods Vishnu, Thirumurthi, Laxmi, Gayatri, Durga, Ganesha, Lav-Kush as well as Krishna on a tree possessing the clothes of bathing gopis.

Adorning the labels of Japanese matchboxes were Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva (with Japanese features) and Kali.

Not to be left behind, Austrian matchboxes came up with labels o’ ‘Hunoom’n’ (Hanuman) and Gaja Lakshmi.

When the matchboxes began to be manufactured in India, the religious labels simply multiplied. Now there was Krishna and Radha, a Hindu holy man, Nataraja, Shiv Ling, Nandi, Durga, Shiva and Ganesha, Baby Krishna and more.

As the independence movement gathered pace, manufactures in India came up with ‘nationality’ labels: Ashoka Pillar, Chakra, a map of undivided India and with slogans such as ‘Dawn of Independence’, ‘Free India’ and ‘Jai Hind’.

There were also labels of Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Shivaji, Bhagat Singh, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Nehruji. Incidentally, some of these were made in Japan.

Matchbox labels also came with hand drawn pictures of the Maharajas of Mysore, Baroda, Travancore, Gwalior, Kashmir and Jammu, Alwar, Bikaner, Dhar, Indore, Jaipur and Patiala.

Then there was a ‘Glimpse of India’ series (from Austria) – picturing leading monuments — and ‘sacred places’ across the country. Red Fort and Agra Fort were prominent labels too.

Post independence, the Indian government began using matchboxes to spread the message of family planning and the importance of savings. Private companies too found the matchboxes a cheap way to advertise their products.

Hemmady had wanted to collect matchbox labels from the age of eight. But the process began only in 2012 when he decided to buy some existing collections – and then build on them.

Today, he has some 25,000 labels, wrappers and cardboards from the matchbox industry and this is his first exhibition. It ends on Friday.

So why are today’s matchboxes in India so drab?

Hemmady feels that Indian manufacturers – the industry is now almost wholly based in Tamil Nadu – don’t particularly care for colourful designs cost money and most matchboxes sell for just a rupee.

“But the matchboxes exported (from India) are different and very appealing”, he says.