An Instagram Project Documents Indian Histories Through Matchbox Art

Image source: Instagram
Image source: Instagram

It could be your favourite pair of tattered kolhapuris you refuse to get rid of, the idlis you had for breakfast or the laptop I am using to write this piece — every object has a story to tell. For Shreya Katuri it was matchboxes. 25-year-old Katuri’s Instagram page artonabox is an insight into the evolution of culture through art on matchboxes.

It was in 2013 that Katuri first developed an interest in matchbox art. She decided to analyse matchbox art from a sociological perspective while specifically focusing on notions governing gender, religion and India as a nation. “I didn’t want to work on something related to radio, print and broadcast because I was already doing a lot of it in class. I randomly came across a matchbox and thought why not? I did have a visual media and cultural studies background which helped me follow through with the project,” said Katuri during a conversation with Homegrown. “The matchboxes in a way help trace the evolution of culture in a way. Take modes of transportation for instance. Really old matchboxes have ships, the one’s that were manufactured later have Marutis and the newer ones have Santros or Tata Nanos,” explained Katuri while elaborating on why matchbox art fascinates her.

Katuri’s discovery of the role of matchbox art in providing insight into India’s cultural evolution was reinforced by her findings. “What I was especially interested in was depiction of women. It went from Bharat Mata invoking nationalist sentiments to women as brides, women in traditional clothes or women in Western attire with added focus on her cleavage. Most of them showed women as objects and normalised male gaze,” said Katuri.

(Image source: Instagram)

Katuri’s journey of actually getting her hands on these matchboxes is as interesting as her findings. Rescued from a pile of leaves, tiny pan shops, fancy restaurants or prints that date back to colonised India, matchboxes in Katuri’s collection have been on some great adventures of their own. “My friends and family were actively involved in looking for matchboxes for my dissertation. I remember this one time my sister bolted out of her car at a red light just because she saw a matchbox on the side of the road,” fondly recalled Katuri.

But what is it that made Katuri continue collecting matchboxes much after her dissertation was over? “I didn’t want to stop collecting because I started having a lot of fun and I didn’t want to stop thinking about the stories that lead up to certain matchbox designs. This was an integral part of my education. I don’t want to stop educating myself,” said Katuri. “I also wanted to share it with people. I didn’t think people would be interested, but they were. They even began questioning certain designs. And this involvement and intrigue was very exciting to witness,” she added.

(Image source: Instagram)

With over 2,500 matchboxes from across the globe, Katuri insists on not being referred to as a collector. “There are two reasons why I don’t think I should be referred to as a collector. One, after speaking with other collectors I realised that their focus is more on the quantity. For me the excitement started with studying them. The symbols, icons and stories behind the boxes is what attracted me. It was the intrigue that came with how a matchbox transcends boundaries whatever these boundaries might be,” said Katuri. She goes on to talk about how referring to her as a collector is not entirely fair. “I feel like being a collector is a lot more official. In my personal opinion you need to have a certain amount of knowledge. Collectors know what they are doing. It is a lot more official and nuanced than picking up matchboxes from here and there. I wouldn’t want to disrespect that,” she added.

Katuri has been collecting matchboxes for five years now, and like anyone who is enthusiastic about anything, she has a favourite. “It says Good things are to come. I found it on a pavement in Boston on the first of January, and that usually doesn’t happen, you don’t really find match boxes on the street. Everything about it is special,” said Katuri. But what is next in store for artonabox? “I didn’t think I’d keep collecting till 2018. But I will continue. Even if I don’t search for them actively people around me will keep giving them to me because they are so used to me asking them for matchboxes,” laughed Katuri. She also plans on launching a website to exhibit her collection for the world to see. “Just helping people be inspired by the colour, or symbol or typography makes it all worthwhile. The messages I get from people who’ve drawn inspiration from my collection are enough to keep me going,” signs off Katuri.

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