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History in boxes

In this voting season, one government property is proudly exhibiting tiny election symbols of political parties alongside hundreds of other logos and pictures. Symbols of Trinamul Congress, CPM and Congress feature among the hundreds of matchbox covers collected by Utpal Sanyal. If Ajit Panja seeks votes on one, on another it is Kiran Chowdhury of Congress or the CPM’s Nirjharini Chakraborty.

Political messages feature alongside communications on preventive health — on AIDS, single marriage, blood donation and, of course, Sanyal’s pet subject cancer. The cancer researcher’s award-winning stamp collection on cancer has earlier been featured in Metro.

Sanyal has been collecting matchboxes since 1974. His collection comprises around 28,000 of 105 countries, of which 5,000 are on view.

Utpal Sanyal

His oldest matchbox dates back to 1926. “There are box labels bearing the calendar of the month. One of them carries the year 1926. Since matchboxes, unlike stamps, do not quote the time of issue, this is my oldest documented one.”

He takes the most pride in his Swadeshi matchboxes. “Bearing messages like Swadhinata samo sukh nai, Nirutsaha hoyo na Bangali, Bideshi ponyo borjon swadeshi grohon, these would often be confiscated by the British.”

Many mark India’s freedom as well, typically bearing pictures of the Tricolour. “Before Independence, Swedish matchboxes ruled the Indian market,” he says, pointing to kitsch Durga and Kali. Matchboxes on historical personages like Babar, Akbar, Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah bear the words Made in Sweden on them. There were German matchboxes too in British India. Next to two such bearing the label “Allumettes bengales”, which produced coloured flames, was a “Bengal light” of the brand name Mandolin which claims to be better than the German ones.

Entertainers have long been the staple of matchboxes — be it Gauhar Jaan, Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Javed Miandad, Kapil Dev or Maradona of yore or current pin-ups like Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor, Viswanathan Anand and Sachin Tendulkar. “A visitor to the exhibition has promised to give me one on Suchitra Sen,” beams the 63-year-old who recently featured in the winning team of the TV quiz contest Dadagiri. “I gifted Sourav Ganguly (who hosts the show) a laminated sheet with all matchbox labels on him. He said he would display it at home.”

Possibly unknown to them, many companies and brands have made it to matchbox labels — Pepsi, Fanta, Thums Up, Pan Parag, Frooti, Parle, Nescafe, Vat 69, Kitkat, Complan, Amul, Lux, to name a few. Match boxes have embraced technology too — from logos of Windows and Apple to pictures of cellphones, TVs, camera and computers. A couple carry recipes too.

Sanyal has matchboxes from abroad as well. “The biggest in my collection is an 11inch one featuring a stained glass painting from France’s Notre Dame church. The smallest is a German one, barely 1cm. But the longest lasting one is from Dubai, called Barbecue matches, which claim to burn for minimum eight minutes. He has a 3D matchbox too, from Japan, while one from the US has match sticks made of sandalwood. Some matchboxes are souvenirs like a double-decker bus-shaped one, which contains 16 boxes, their labels telling the story of the evolution of transport in Berlin.

Sanyal admits a debt of gratitude to people, known and unknown. “Author Banaphul’s collection of about 500 matchboxes was gifted to me by his daughter. Many of the foreign exhibits were sent by Facebook friends.”

Is Sanyal matchless in his hobby of phillumeny? The resident of Sinthee has humbly cited the Guinness record in his introductory note to the exhibition at Gaganendra Pradarshashala, till 8pm on Sunday: seven lakh-plus by a Japanese collector!