Brain Pickings

Vintage Indian Matchbook Labels


A vibrant tale of cultural history and brand power.

Matchbook (public library), from the wonderful Tara Books, collects more than 500 striking Indian matchbox labels gathered by Shahid Datawala over the course of several decades, at once reminiscent of vintage Soviet propaganda in their visual language and of mid-century American travel posters in their vibrant colors, and yet entirely singular and culturally distinctive in overall sensibility. The designs, which advertise everything from guns to violins and inhabit the curious space between culture and commerce, do more than brand the product — with their animated, loud identity, they demand attention as standalone objects of fixation, almost fetishistic in their seductive boldness. At the same time, the avalanche of imitation that the most popular designs sparked — often comic in its complete disregard for and oblivion to modern intellectual property norms — bespeaks a key characteristic of any powerful brand: the hunger for imitation.

The history of the Indian match industry has a fascinating history itself — from its roots in Swedish capital, to the boom of local production in the 1920s that propelled self-made Indian entrepreneurs from the lower castes into newfound independence, to its Golden Age following the Indian liberation from British rule. At once a tool of state economic planning, actively incentivizing local jobs, and a mecca of child labor employing kids as young as six, the story of the matchbox industry parallels the evolution of Indian society in the twentieth century. V. Geetha writes in a short essay contextualizing the images:

More generally, in the Indian context, labels came to circulate as tokens of shared culture and connoted commercial goodwill. … Ultimately, the charm of match labels, even for those that commission them, must be linked to visual pleasure, renewed on an everyday basis. And through these images, the humble matchstick resonates — in a convoluted, barely recognized fashion — with mythic and historical memory, valorized icons and images, an fantasies of consumption.

Matchbook is itself shaped like a matchbox and comes in a beautiful matt-laminated slipcase.

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