Posted by Ehtisham
A few different authors have tried to identify a single person as first artist in Pakistan. Though there is little historical to answer this question, that has not been an obstacle to enterprising commentators.
Perhaps it was a Karachi-based painter named Ustad Elahi Baksh:
The art originated in the days of the Raj, when craftsmen decorated horse-drawn carriages for the aristocracy. Rana, citing historian Peter Grant, said the Kohistan Bus Company hired craftsman Ustad Elahi Bakhsh and his group to decorate their buses to attract passengers in the 1920s.
From Central Asia Online, December 12, 2011
This account, however, has limited credibility, not least of all because Peter Grant is not a historian, but a New Zealand-based artist and photographer.
Another theory also places the origin in Karachi but attributes the start to Haji Hussain:
Trucks, introduced in Karachi in the 1930s were initially simply painted with a protective coat of one colour with the name of the truck company stenciled in a single colour. After partition, in the 1950s trade and port activities increased in the city and the economic prosperity of the 1950s ushered in a demand for transportation of goods. Gradually the embellishment on trucks became elaborate, evolving into a popular art form, referred to as truck art. One of the claimants to the beginning s of truck decoration was Haji Hussain who came from a long line of kamaaangars (bow and arrow makers) turned court painters in Kutch, Gujarat. At partition he brought his skills in painting murals, decorative ceilings, and statuary to Karachi and added to the stenciled trucks images of birds, flower vases, a telephone with a woman’s hand picking up the receiver on which the company’s telephone number would be written.. His sons, grandsons, and former apprentices have carried on the tradition of [chitarkari] the art of making pictures, painting trucks, sign writing or decorating furniture and decorative light panels all over Pakistan.
From “The Semicotics of the Nation’s Icons by Naazish-Ullah” in Mazaar, Bazaar: Design & Visual Culture in Pakistan In this account, Haji Husain’s role in popularlizing the art receives even greater emphasis.
This account is provocative as it suggests that Pakistani truck art was born in what is present-day India, not Pakistan. Like the first article, it also does not have any real historical evidence to support the claim. Both accounts highlight Karachi, where the first trucks in Pakistan were imported, and it is likely here that truck art has its origins in Pakistan.
In reality, truck decoration “is an entirely modern constellation of occupations in which market forces are the major determinant of its development” and not attributable to an individual. The painter is only one important contributor the overall decoration of the truck and complemented by the ironworking, studs, mirrors, embroidery, and tape embellishments that make a fully decorated Pakistani truck. Although certain artists have gained prominence, some of whom have been highlighted on this blog, none of them or their predecessors can take credit as being the first.
Posted by Ehtisham
Posted by Ehtisham
Last May, the Istanbul public transit authority unveiled a municipal bus decorated by a Pakistani artist. The event was widely covered in Turkish print and broadcast media and included speeches by local municipal officials and the Pakistan Consulate General. The Turkish onlookers seem genuinely impressed by their unusual bus.
Overall, the design of the truck includes some aspects common to truck art in Pakistan but its a departure in several key respects. Some of the motifs, such as the chukar partridge and the peacock are frequently represented on trucks in Pakistan, as are some of the locations depicted, such as the Faisal Mosque and Minar-e-Pakistan. These Pakistani sites sit alongside a painting of the Blue Mosque, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Istanbul.
The most significant departure of the bus from decorated vehicles in Pakistan is that there is no Islamic imagery, apart from mosques, which do not take on much religious significance. On decorated trucks in Pakistan, a depiction of the Kaaba or the prophet’s mosque is the norm. The rear of the vehicle, which is typically a place for jokes or aphorisms, is dedicated to Pakistan-Turkey friendship.
Interestingly, much of the Turkish media covering the announcement have described the truck art as a “The Art of Karachi” (`Karaçi Sanatı`). Yet the artist, Haider Ali, hails from Lahore. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, other cities can also make strong claims as the center of truck art in Pakistan.
According to the Consulate General in Istanbul , the bus was expected to be on the road for three months. I wonder what happened after that time? Recent forum posts suggest it may still be on the road.
Posted by Ehtisham
A recent art project by students of the National College of Arts in Rawalpindi has generated significant media coverage. To “spread the excitement” of the 2012 London Olympics, the art students painted a Hino truck. I suppose it was successful in increasing awareness. Before reading about this effort, I had not heard of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a celebration of national traditions that complements the sporting contests.
This is a departure from traditional truck art decoration, with a much different intent. For the students, the aim was to increase awareness, or promote, London 2012. Though some buses may attract more passengers with better decoration, there is no overt advertising motive in traditional truck art.
The students also took remarkable liberties with the motifs on the bus. This has to be the first “truck art” vehicle to include a picture of lips and “Lolz”. Perhaps this is the student’s vernacular, as pithy sayings are for truckers. Despite the motifs that break with tradition, other aspects of style, like color, are consistent with tradition. With the new decorations, the vehicle looks more garish yet less visually stunning than most on the road. This could be because the bus lacks the taj, or headpiece above the windowshield, which is one of the most impressive parts of decorated trucks.
None of the articles mention the inclusion of more experienced craftsman and artists. I am curious if any were involved and, if so, their reaction is to the work.
The British Ambassador seems pleased and based on the students interviewed in this video, they were satisfied with their work. Even better if they could use this foray into truck art as the first of many experimentations.
Posted by Ehtisham
In October 2011, Ghulam Sarwar, an artist who hails from Peshawar but works mostly in Karachi, visited Bethesda, Maryland, in the suburbs of the Washington DC. He practiced his craft on several US vehicles (the exact number is not mentioned in any of the articles), homes, and buildings, including the door of Honest Tea, a local beverage producer. Though he notes in this interview that the motivation among his American clients is different than Pakistani truckers, he does not seem to mind. This article, which also has the best collection of pictures, describes the enthusiastic reception among Americans.
For a typical assignment, such painting the KIA Soul in the picture, he receives $1,500-2,000 and takes between 7 to 10 days. He also painted a Volkswagen Bug on Capitol Hill for $1400. This is not the first painted bug from Pakistan; others have been mentioned on this site. Though few vehicles of those vehicles have seen a US audience. All the American owners interviewed raved about Sarwar’s work and the response the vehicles generate.
This is most recent of several visits to the US by Sarwar. In 2009 the artist participated in a Sante Fe exposition of craftsmen from the developing world and received an Award from UNESCO for his contribution.
Sarwar has previously expanded his artistry beyond trucks. He has partnered with Tribal Truck Art to decorate homewares with a truck art motifs. It was the founder of Tribal Truck Art, Anjum Rana, who helped Sarwar gain exposure at the Sante Fe Festival.
I see initiatives like Tribal Truck Art in a different light after finishing Professor Jamal Elias’ recently published book on Truck Art. The work as a whole is remarkable, essential reading on truck art, and deserves a much more thorough treatment than one blog post. In brief Elias views Tribal Truck Art, which are run by Pakistani elite, as exploiting the art and its lower class producers. Though Sarwar is now working for a different audience and clientele, it is not clear if he is disadvantaged by doing so. Or if this change serves to distort the art rather than preserve it. For Sarwar as an individual, he seems to have enjoyed the multiple trips to the US and the additional exposure.
Posted by Ehtisham
I’m resuming blogging after an extended hiatus by commenting on an article that was published earlier this month in the US paper of record, the New York Times. For several reasons, I think this is the best coverage I’ve ever read about truck art in a popular publication.
First, the author consults the major names in the truck art world, Durriya Kazi and Jamal Elias. Of these two, Elias has published more on the topic and in several scholarly journals. I’ve learned alot from reading him and its great to see him referenced. Any author is just scratching the surface without his insight.
Second, the article addresses one of the questions I’ve long had about truck art: what is the economic benefit from decorating a vehicle? With buses, the motive is clear. A better decorated bus will attract more passengers and make more money. But there is not an obvious incentive to decorate a truck, because most trucks are hired through middlemen, sight unseen. A better decorated truck will not bring in any more business. But, as the article points out, more decorations will make the truck more desirable for drivers, who can choose between vehicles. So with more decoration, truck owners get better truck drivers.
Third, the author visits some of the key truck art hubs in the country. Typically, journalists will visit the workshop in Rawalpindi, Lahore, or possibly Karachi. Parchman deserves a Pulitzer for visiting truck artists in both Lahore and Karachi. Still, he is modest in his conclusions. Some commentators have tried to draw spurious distinctions between the different forms of painting in each area. Parchman recognizes that it takes serious expertise: “Though the differences are not apparent to the untrained eye, drivers can tell what part of Pakistan a vehicle is from based on its decorations.”
If there is one part of the article with which I might take issue, its the final paragraphs. The contrasts between Pakistani truckers and their American counterparts are noteworthy, though this deserves a much more thorough analysis.
Posted by Ehtisham
The Washington Post has an article worth reading about the challenges and future of cross-border trade. Both countries are interested in expansion but are hampered by bureaucratic red tape. Though there are clear sings of progress; now, trucks are allowed to cross the border, which was only made possible in 2007. The existence of restricted Visas which only allow access to certain cities was news to me.
This article only makes a passing reference to truck art, when mentioning the “vibrantly painted” vehicle owned by a Pakistani transporting dates. The print version has some great pictures of fully decorated trucks preparing to cross the border. It is unfortunate the Post did not choose those for their online version.
Posted by Ehtisham
The decorated cars featured in this blog are a novelty in Pakistan. In a country with per capita GDP of $1100 and just 8 cars per 1000 people, owning a vehicle is a privilege reserved for the elite. Car ownership is a widely held aspiration, a sign of wealth, and a demonstration of status.
Decorated trucks, on the other hand, connote something much different. According to many truck art scholars, the eclectic and colorful expressions found on truck art are an outward reflection of the trucker’s lifestyle. Alain Lefebvre makes this point in “The Decorative Truck as a Communicative Device” Semiotica 75, no. 3-4 (1989). Page 218
The driver is aware of the reputation as a modern adventurer he has among the men-in-the-street.
Through his behavior and manners he tries to express masculinity, courage, and toughness in such a way that the others’ fear and respect are strengthened. He drives fast and carelessly, the road is his own; he smokes hashish (both to enhance his reputation and because it is an aid in surviving the tempo of work); he likes erotic love songs; he has sexual relationships with his young assistant; he smuggles goods; he shows off by recalling how he is constantly confronted with dangers on the road. In other words, these characteristics are complementary to the power of expression of the truck itself.
The difference between truck and car decoration could support this explanation. The car-owning middle and upper class Pakistanis share none the characteristics Lefebvre associates with Pakistani truck drivers. Instead, their life runs a pattern similar to their Western counterparts, working an eight-hour day and driving a normal vehicle appropriate for the routine of that lifestyle. In the eyes of many from this background, truck art is considered garish, sophomoric, and unsophisticated, and staid, unembellished vehicles are more appropriate.
Other scholarship on truck art echoes Lefebvre’s characterization. George W. Rich and Shahid Khan make a very similar point about the trucker’s lifestyle. (Bedford Painting in Pakistan: The Aesthetics and Organization of an Artisan Trade” The Journal of American Folklore, 93, no. 369 (1980))
A somewhat romantic figure, the driver carries with him a repute as a footloose rowdy, with indelicate mores and a particular liking for bawdy songs. He is admired for his tenacity to forage sun-baked deserts; for having traveled far and wide, linking towns, cities, and villages throughout Pakistan; for living the rough but rewarding life many a sedentary youngster might emulate. Much of this image is conspicuously displayed in the character of his motorized edifice.
Is the colorful explosion of expression found on truck carriages a reflection of trucker’s self-perception and their outward representation? This is possible, but there are several reasons to doubt this connection. In the aggregate, the art truck looks chaotic and disorganized. But each individual element is the just the opposite. Truck panels are composites of many different carefully drawn pictures, most of which are idyllic, bucolic scenes of streams, mountains, or forests. While many of the origin and meaning of many of the motifs are unfamiliar to the drivers, to the extent that they consciously choose different elements, their selection process has nothing to do with promoting the raucous, rowdy image described by the authors above. In my conversations with truckers, some will identify with a certain picture, such as an eagle, but the elaborate composition as a whole does not represent their lifestyle.
Another reason to doubt the vehicle-as-mirror-of-lifestyle explanation is that trucker’s lives are really not as glamorous as the mildly romanticized depictions above. While life as a trucker is Pakistan is not the worst profession, it involves “relentless hours of monotony on the roads,” which many drivers attempt to alleviate through drug use. It is continually physically grueling, as truckers for more than ten hours a day, sleep inside the cab of a truck or on the roof at night. The lifestyle puts drivers at greater risk of HIV and other diseases.
Posted by Ehtisham
- Dawn News photo of one of Holbrooke’s staff in an
art truck (original not available online)
On Thursday, June 24, The US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke visited Lok Virsa, the only museum in the country with a display dedicated to truck art. According to all accounts, he took a special interest in the truck art portion of the massive museum. He called the truck art display “art on wheels,” which could be a reference to the book with the same name. Members of his staff delegation entered the cab of the aging truck that sits outside the museum.
I’ve commented before that the truck art exhibit at Lok Virsa does not do justice to the art. Centered around a diorama of a truck tea shop and a side of the vehicle, it is really more of an obligatory nod to the art and not a serious treatment. In fairness, I suppose its marginally better than many of the other museums in Islamabad, many of which are in more desperate need of repairs and support.
In the more than 18 months that Holbrooke has been in office, he has done an excellent job of maintaining the status quo. Truck art is threatened but it would be best if this wonderful art continued for years. Let’s hope that Holbrooke has the same effect on the present state of vehicular decorations that he has on other issues.
Posted by Ehtisham
Indian Homemaker has assembled an excellent photo collection of Indian trucks. I’ve commented before on the similarities and differences between Indian and Pakistani trucks, but her pictures , translations, and brief comments are actually more informative than the broadcast coverage of Indian trucks.
- Classic Indian truck painting, thanks to
There are several points that struck me as I looked through the pictures. First, Indian truckers seem much more concerned about safety than their counterparts. The rear of every truck has safety-related instructions. From these pictures “Blow Horn”, looks the most widely used, but other accounts find “Horn OK” as more frequent. “Use Dipper at Night” asks drivers to switch from a high beam to a low beam (or is it just saying, turn on your lights!). For the Indian trucks, this guidance is much more prominent than any pictures, poetry, or quips, which are the most visible fixtures on the rear of Pakistani trucks. Although not featured in any of Indian Homemaker’s collection, some Indian trucks do have murals on the rear, which look quite similar to Pakistani paintings.
In marked contrast to Pakistani trucks, which have a uniformly feminine appearance, Indian trucks vary in sex and age.
“Don’t miss ‘Chamiya’ ( a flashily dressed woman?) on the middle flap This truck is female Many trucks are also referred to as sons (beta), daughters (beti), tigresses (shernee) and ladla (a male brat) or laadli (female brat)”
Though it is noteworthy no trucks are called adult men, Indian trucks can be masculine. I’ve never heard a Pakistani vehicle given a male name.
The religious imagery on trucks are not specific to any faith. Allah Akbar (or some variation, such as Mashallah or Subhanallah) appears on every Pakistani truck and are distinctly Islamic. Religious decorations on trucks are much more universal, such as “God is One” and “God is Universal.” With such a range of Hindu deities to choose from, the absence of religious imagery may be a move to avoid sectarian strife. There probably is no advantage to having a truck that is easily identified as Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh as it limits access to certain areas, which is not a concern in Pakistan. (Though apparently Indian Homemaker’s selection is not a representative sample, and Hindu gods are painted on trucks, as this picture shows).
More broadly, truck design in both India and Pakistan adhere to unwritten guidelines which are remarkably different, yet widely followed. Spaces are clearly defined –religious imagery on the front in the case of Pakistani vehicles, an area for warning other drivers on the rear in Indian vehicles – even if there is no formal explanation of this specific purpose. Although the messages are straightforward and usually replicated blindly, the process by which truckers and truck artists came to associate certain areas of their trucks with certain messages is much more complex.