A few years ago, a 25-year-old Shreya Katuri was strolling through a labyrinth of narrow alleys in Varanasi when she spotted a bright yellow matchbox at a paan shop. Excitedly, she handed over a Rs 10 note to buy it. But this seemed like an outrageous request to the conservative village man who refused to do so, assuming the lady wanted to smoke. She told him about her matchbox collection project and assured him multiple times but it was all in vain.
Finally, Shreya took her mother to the shop who convinced the shopkeeper to give her the box that had a picture of a farmer with his cows. And with the addition of that box Shreya’s matchbox collection touched 3,500 — a feat that seems both strange and intriguing.
Shreya’s fascination with matchboxes began in 2013 during her dissertation project. She had to use a visual medium to analyse gender, religion and India as a nation. “I decided to study matchbox labels as a form of popular culture in my final undergraduate year. To get a deeper understanding of the contemporary boxes, I started collecting more recent ones. That’s how my collection started. During that time I assembled some of the most interesting, quirky and heartwarming matchboxes. After a point, I was hooked,” the 28-year-old from Delhi tells The Better India.
She started her collection in Boston in 2013 where she was studying for her Masters. Shreya has picked discarded boxes off the streets, shops and even tapris. In the beginning, her friends and family pitched in, and eventually, seeing her Instagram posts, even strangers contributed to her unique collection. She tells me she often finds a parcel of matchboxes awaiting her when she returns home from work.
In the last eight odd years, Shreya has managed to collect around 5,000 matchboxes not just from India but from other countries such as Australia, the United States, Russia, China, Sri Lanka.
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Every matchbox she collects has a story to tell. With the help of timelines and regions, she tries to analyse the cultural evolution of society. For instance, she has boxes that have cars from the classic Maruti 800, Santro to the latest Tata Nano. Depiction of women was another intriguing subject that reiterated the concept of objectifying women by showing their cleavage on matchboxes.
Other interesting illustrations include Mickey Mouse, the vintage Ship (symbolising Mumbai ports), Saint Tulsidas, animals, cars, soldiers, Sherlock’s Home Museum (London), Howrah Bridge (Kolkata), freedom fighters, Mahabharata, flowers, facebook and films like Mother India and Coolie. This is but a small drop in the vast ocean of her matchbox collection.
While her collection hobby is a never-ending one, she hopes to archive all of them in a museum or exhibit them someplace they can be appreciated. Till then, she is working to digitise the boxes so that they can be displayed on an online platform for everyone to access.
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Here are a few images of her collection:
All images are sourced from Shreya Katuri
Edited by Yoshita Rao
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