By Pradyu M
It was many years ago, my father being a railwayman had the privilege to take the whole family for Indian railway tours annually and so we had the privilege to visit many places in India right from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. The tour really made us kids, me and my brother, enjoy the long railway journey and beautifully understand and learn about the vast variety-packed land of diversity, our Mother India – its people, places and culture. And during each tour dad had something to teach us. It was during such tours I learnt from my father to write short travelogues, sketching and collection of various souvenirs of the various places we visited. Besides learning new things I understood how great our nation is.
It was during one such tour that dad introduced us to a new hobby – collecting matchbox labels. He just told us to collect matchboxes and we started collecting. Watching this ‘odd collection’ my childhood friends who were with us also helped us collect matchboxes with different hues and designs.
At that time, we didn’t know why we were collecting these and it was just fun and enjoyment for us – running on the roads adjacent to the great VictoriaTerminus (now CST), the premises of the Red Fort and on the railway platforms of Agra Cantt collecting matchboxes. It was after some years that we came to know that this collection of matchboxes, labels and matchbooks is a wonderful hobby that many people had at that time but slowly has now faded. We came to know in fact that dad had a passion for this beautiful hobby called Phillumeny right from his childhood days and he was in fact passing that on to us!
My father has a huge collection of matchbox labels collected right from his school days in the nineteen fifties and we contributed to that collection during the nineteen eighties as school kids.
Phillumeny as a hobby began after the invention of matchboxes and matchsticks during the early 19th century. Hobbyists and souvenir collector’s visiting different places started collecting matchboxes and matchbooks to keep them as souvenirs of their trips. The hobby became very popular like stamp collection during the 1960s, 70s and 80s paving way for the rise of many Phillumenists ready to display their collection of a rare but interesting hobby.
During the 1980s, as a school kid, I remember having competitions among my friends to become a winner by collecting the maximum number of matchbox labels with different designs. The one who has the most number of labels with different pictures was the winner. My father was very much interested in this and I remember the children of our residential colony in Coimbatore making a beeline to our house during Sundays and dedicating hours of sharing, displaying and exchanging matchbox labels.
Phillumeny as philately gives a lot of information connected to history and other subjects. It throws light on the history of the evolution of matchboxes and match sticks and going through these good old labels makes one understand about traditions, events and icons of a particular period. As most matchboxes came from Sivakasi, Kovilpatti and Pollachi and other places in Tamilnadu the labels depict the icons and occasions of that state as well as that of India. Similarly, matchboxes manufactured from different parts of India clearly depict the tradition, culture and personalities of that region. The main reason for the labels to look very artistic and colourful was to attract customers. Nowadays we rarely come across such variety labels as these have gone hi-tech and other devices have replaced these beautiful tiny safety boxes.
Phillumenists believe that matchbox labels serve as a tool to learn other traditions, occasions, national and global icons. For example, matchbox labels displaying the festivals like Pongal of Tamil Nadu or the Onam of Kerala give information about those. Similarly, labels depicting bygone global icons like Bruce Lee or film stars of the past makes one have an urge to know about them. The same goes for different vehicles of the past, flowers, fruits, animals and birds, leaders and the list goes on and on. It amazingly gives us information about the denomination in practice in a particular era.
Years have passed and matchboxes are still alive but how many, especially among the new generation, knows about Phillumeny – a marvellous and matchless hobby, and whether in this fast-paced life one has time to even think about or know about this is a question that arises in the hearts of Phillumenists like my octogenarian father who even now finds immense joy browsing the Phillumeny album.