Something drew him to the colour, vibrancy and intricate pictorials on small wooden boxes which held safety matches. Lure of a phosphorus burst, smell of sulphur with every strike of a match and a fire was lit, the flame tamed and the box crushed or tossed into the waste bin, but it sparked off a passion in Sunil Bhatt. He picked up the pieces while smoke encircled the doused matchstick. Bhatt turned matchboxes into his museum of fame. He became a phillumenist without being aware of it. Bhopal’s first matchbox, the Hamidia brand, vintage World War II matches used by soldiers in trenches, is part of his rare collectibles.
Call him BHEL’s matchbox man, 42-year-old Sunil Bhatt has a collection of 15,000 rare matchboxes which he meticulously stockpiled for 15 years. This includes more than 100 pieces imported from Spain, Denmark, America, France, Sweden, Norway, Britain — 93 countries to be precise. It’s a motley crowd on display. They are rectangular, round, hexagonal, octagonal with sizes ranging from a few millimetres to even 11 inches. He isn’t shy about picking up a castaway matchbox on a street or walk up to a vegetable vendor smoking a beedi and ask for his matchbox.
Bhatt, a resident of Awadhpuri, has a worldwide network of foreign friends with whom he exchanges Indian matchboxes for foreign ones by connecting through Facebook. Every matchbox carries a message, from saving the girl child, creating awareness on blood donation, rainwater harvesting to wildlife protection. His trophies are just not made of wood, but also of plastic, metal.
Sitting in his bedroom with his mammoth collection of designer matchboxes, Bhatt says “I began collecting matchboxes when I was barely into my teens. What started with collecting my father’s matchboxes and pasting then on my study copies became the love of my life.”
The boxes are neatly stacked in numerous medium-sized plastic boxes shielding them from damage and every box is steeped in history. Name any style, be it before independence, any brand, advertisement, celebrity, political symbol, ethnicity, animal — the list is endless, Sunil Bhatt has it all.
“Hardly anybody knows the history of the sheep and camel brand matchboxes. These are most famous symbols as these were the two main animal carriers through which matchboxes were traded. You pick any box, and it opens up with history,” he said.
And he has an interesting anecdote to tell. Labelling of Indian matchboxes was done in Sweden. The famous Kali Mata matchbox label was made in Sweden and manufactured in Kolkata. “That’s how India got her matchboxes before independence,” he said.
Which collection is most difficult? Bhatt says, “ITC comes out with set of five matchboxes every month. These are beautiful and their demand is big. And within minutes, these are gone. They are either traded by collectors to foreign countries or bureaucrats. But I still manage to bag one of the pieces.”
“Earlier, people would mock at my hobby, calling me a rubbish collector. But what every small piece of cardboard match is precious for me,” he says.
Many ask why he risks stockpiling hazardous matchsticks and turns his bedroom into a tinderbox. Bhatt is unmoved. He’s innovative with matchsticks, transforming them into Amitabh Bachchan’s portrait or a variety designs. In fact, such is his love for Big B, that he has thousands of matchboxes with the celebrity’s face, his movies and dialogues.
Bhatt has never puffed at a cigarette, but his majority clients and contacts are smokers as they are the repository of matchboxes. “Once we went to a fair. Police were grappling with the security situation. Everybody had to empty their pockets at checkpoint. And to my surprise, every second person was junking matchboxes into the bin. The next thing I remember doing was rushing to the security guard and requesting him to let me collect those matchboxes. At first, they thought I was eccentric and refused. After much persuasion, they allowed me to collect the matchboxes, but without the sticks. I did not enter the fair premises, but I was the happiest man that night,” he said.
“His collections have gone up after marriage. Earlier, I was indifferent to his hobby, but now whenever I go shopping and see a matchbox lying on the road, I pick it up. His face lights up as if it’s the best gift he can get,” said wife, Tripti Bhatt.
“My two daughters support me and also help me increase my collection. But my mother was my biggest motivation. In those times, seeing a matchbox in the hands of a boy was nothing less than sin. But my mother understood my hobby and encouraged me,” says Bhatt.
He grew up in a small town in Neemuch district. “I remember, there was an elephant man in our village. Tall, haggard and deformed. Children would be excited to see him. But my eyes were stuck on a matchbox, he held. I went up to him and asked for it, but he shooed me away, saying don’t demand big things from big men. Disheartened, I ran to my mother and asked for help. Without a blink of an eye, she went to the man and bargained for the matchbox. At that time, my mother paid Rs 5, just to make me happy. From that day, I have never looked back on what people say. This is my passion and I will continue to be called the matchbox man,” he said.