Cultural Symbology: Indian Matchboxes

An Old Matchbox from India with the original Tiger Symbol

Tigers occupy an important place in the Indian culture, and are the National animal, also called the Royal Bengal Tiger. Since ages, it has been a symbol of magnificence, power, beauty and fierceness and has been associated with bravery and valour. The tiger also has a significant place in Hindu mythology as the vehicle of Goddess Durga.

Using the old matchbox as a point of reference, and inspiration I designed a drawing based on Risograph colours. The two tigers dance opposite each other with some basic lines and lightning bolts to decorate. I have several premade shapes of matchbox templates that I use, and focus on this type primarily for animals. When the box is drawn closed, the focus then changes to the design rather than the matches.

Did you know at a cost of one rupee, these economical and disposable matchboxes are often found empty and discarded on the roadside near truck stops and littering the footpaths around chai stalls and cigarette shops? Purchased from convenience stores, these ubiquitous objects are commonly used in homes to light stoves, the pious havan or diyas for religious rituals and lighting cigarettes or their cheaper counterparts, the beedis.

I came across my first matchbox when I was a little girl with my grandfather’s collection. Many people collect these and his came with him (before he accumulated more from overseas) from India. I think he missed where he originated from, and in a way these were his memories. One of these matchbox labels featured an illustration of a killer whale with the word ‘Dolphin’ written above it. Another early find had a photograph of three ‘Famous’ kittens in a wicker basket. 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. As visual signifiers, many of these designs embody personal memories. Collectively the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places and collective experiences.

The imagery on these boxes include Hindu symbolism, historical figures, Bollywood actors, foreign brands and cartoon characters, everyday objects, consumer goods, aspirational items, and a variety of popular and exotic animals. The disparate visuals, meanings and juxtapositions that are present through the collection encapsulate quite perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture seen in many parts of India today. As cultural artefacts these matchboxes tell us about national identity, modernity and tradition, gender roles, religion and globalisation and how these themes often merge and co-exist.

Stay Fierce Tiger Matchbox by Sofia Barton 2021

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