Gautam Hemmady began his collection on a bitingly cold January day in 2012. “It was the 6th. I remember the date. Don’t ask why.” As he walked around in Delhi to warm himself, he visited every paan-wallah and cigarette shop along the way and bought 10-12 different matchboxes. “I found the sellers were very aware of what they had in their stock and were ready to talk matchboxes. That got me started.”

From those 10-12, Hemmady now has a collection of over 25,000 matchboxes, the oldest of which dates back to the 1890s. “I have always collected something or the other,” said Hemmady, “and matchboxes were always something in the back of my mind.”

A selection from his “accumulation”, as Hemmady calls it, is going on display at Delhi's India International Centre from May 28 to June 3.

Titled Matchbox labels and The Stories They Tell, the exhibition includes matchboxes, matchbox labels, packet wrappers, and related paraphernalia. The exhibition seeks to trace the prominent themes in Indian matchbox label design and so is sectioned along subjects like mythology, art, architecture, the Swadeshi movement, film, advertising and messaging.

“The exhibition is not arranged chronologically but is grouped in other ways,” explained Hemmady, an architect by training. “Each section deals with a specific theme that was explored by manufacturers. Labels tended to have much more text in the past, were more refined with beautifully drawn graphics, on quality paper and printing, when compared to later periods.”

Along with more text and social messages from the government, the labels boasted visuals like Raja Ravi Varma paintings. The 1950s saw Bollywood celebs appear on the labels – a trend that continues even today.

Hemmady says most phillumenists collect only matchbox labels and the rest of the matchbox is of interest only to a handful. Nevertheless, every collector keeps some whole matchboxes and he is no different. The oldest whole matchbox he has dates back to the 1920s.

Matchbox labels were the favourite advertising agent for merchants and traders or manufacturers themselves, he says. “Manufacturers of cigarettes, cigars or beedis in India commissioned specially designed labels and brands were put out for sale as well as freely distributed with other products. For example, packets of incense sticks often contain a free matchbox inside.”

Many hotels, airlines, clubs and restaurants still get their own matchboxes and one occasionally sees souvenir matchboxes aimed at tourists.

“All manner of products were advertised on the backs of matchboxes and this appears to have peaked in India in the 1950s,” said Hemmady. “Since then it comes and goes in waves. The switch to cardboard from wooden matchboxes made it that much easier [printing is done in one operation] and advertising on matchboxes is not as uncommon as one may think.”

I just love them, said Hemmady. “Matchboxes from all periods have these interesting stories to tell and then there are stories within stories and patterns within randomness and a zillion other things happening all at the same time.”

Matchbox labels and The Stories They Tell will be on display at the India International Centre, Delhi, from May 28 to June 3.