How Matchboxes Became a Stand-in for Indian Visual Culture

The aesthetics of Indian matchbox covers have seen a resurgence as contemporary artists celebrate the work of designers who still remain largely unknown.

Sneha Mehta

May 19, 2021

How Matchboxes Became a Stand-in for Indian Visual Culture
Indian matchboxes (Courtesy of Art on a Box)

If you look at the cover of Sanjena Sathian’s novel Gold Diggers and think that there’s something very familiar about the hand-drawn, ornamental border and the bold type of the title, all rendered in vivid shades of turquoise, red, and gold, you’re right. The book’s publisher, Penguin Press, collaborated with Sky Goodies, a Mumbai-based paper products brand founded by designers Amit Gudibanda and Misha Gudibanda, to create the cover based on a commonly-found, mass-produced object: the Indian matchbox cover. 

Matchbox covers in India are as tiny as anywhere else in the world, but stand out for their unexpected, eye-catching imagery, though many of the thousands of designs created over decades have no real meaning. You can spot fierce tigers, radiant lotuses, benevolent gods and goddesses, Apple and Disney logos, or the famous still of lead actor Nargis Khan in the Bollywood film Mother India (1957) on these tiny canvases. The pocket-sized time capsules even spotlight significant moments in Indian history and culture, like the Swadeshi movement, the launch of the Tata Nano car, and the popularity of the 1983 Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Coolie. This is Indian pop art at its most accessible; you can buy it for a few rupees at a paan shop, but won’t find it in museums or art galleries.

But besides appealing to collectors, matchbox art is also recently enjoying a more commercial kind of fame, based on its quirkiness and kitsch value. The mass-produced art form is now being co-opted by urban designers to make T-shirts, coasters, and even book covers — a visual style to represent local, authentic Indian-ness. It’s unclear if the recent wave is merely a passing trend, but also raises questions about what it means to co-opt art when many of the original artists remain unknown and anonymous.