Indian matchbox labels and the translocal over the 20th century

Jim Masselos

SOPH, University of Sydney, Australia

Matches are universally available throughout India in boxes with labels pasted on. Matches and labels have been manufactured under cottage-industry conditions, famously in one locality – Sivakashi in South India – which is also a centre where fireworks are made, the logic of this symbiosis being that match heads and fireworks require similar expertise and similar materials. As for the printed images on the match box labels they are decorative and colourful and draw on a vocabulary of widely recognisable images and objects, also invoked in poster and calendar art emerging at much the same time; Sivakasi is also one centre for production of these related products of popular visual culture. Further, matchbox labels constitute a compendium of the tastes and attitudes of those who made them and of those who use them. Used all around India Sivakasi matchboxes exemplify the workings of translocality and transregional processes of creation, production and reception that operated throughout India. The label images represent popular notions of the decorative, suggestive of what is desired or popular. These elements are examined through an analysis based on an old album containing hundreds of these labels.


Jim Masselos is an honorary reader in Department of History at the University of Sydney after retiring as Reader. He has published widely on revealing patterns in the history of Bombay and Indian nationalism, as well as Indian art, co-authoring Dancing to the Flute and catalogues for his curated exhibitions.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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