May 6, 2014 By AP Muhammed Afsal

A Moving Art Gallery without Walls

truckIn the summer of 2002, two Pakistani artists were brought to Smithsonian Folklife Festival along with a 1976 Bedford truck. They were Hyder Ali and Jamiluddin from Karachi’s Garden Road area, famous for vehicle decoration. As outdoor artists-in-residence they decorated the Bedford top to bottom in front of curious onlookers at Washington, D.C.  Now, that work of art is part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

Pakistanis decorate their truck with landscapes, portraits, calligraphic poetry and religious verses, spending $2500 to $13,000. And the duration of the job often lasts six weeks to four months during which drivers hover around the workshops putting suggestions and earning no pay. “It’s worth the expense. More people will hire me if I have a beautifully painted truck,” says a driver from Quetta. In Garden Road area, family-run workshops involved in the business employ more than 50,000 people: apprentices, body repairmen, electricians, carpenters and highly trained artisans.

These trucks have turned Pakistani roads into a gallery without walls. The motifs include film stars, cricketers, Hercules subduing a lion,  Mona Lisa, Princess Diana, F-16 fighter jets, Ghauri missiles, Ka’bah in Makkah, Faysal Mosque in Islamabad and image of an open Qu’ran. Despite repetitions of motifs, each truck is unique once the decoration is done with.

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan says “the roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, well before the mud-brick city of Harappa was constructed.” These trucks are the successors of Neolithic-age camel caravans which moved goods from the Pakistani coast to Central Asia. “The paint jobs identify competing ethnic groups, just as the different designs did on ancient pottery and later on fabrics and carpets. You can look at a truck and tell what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to.”

“Truckers don’t even spend so much money on their own houses,” says Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi. “Once a driver told me that he put his life and livelihood into the truck. If he didn’t honor it with the proper paint job, he would feel he was being ungrateful.” Kazi says the truck art tells about Pakistani society’s pervasive desire to heighten reality. “We have a tendency to decorate everything, because we’re such dreamers and escapists. It’s all part of our need to intensify experience, perhaps to make us forget our drab lives.”

Kazi’s passion for the art was started a decade ago when she took her students to decorate a truck and drive it around Pakistan. Reaction was largely favorable, even as truck artists criticized. “The Garden Road painters said the pictures were interesting, ‘but you’ve painted them very badly,’” the professor recalls. “The students thought they possessed superior talents just because they were in art school, but they soon realized how sophisticated the technique really is. The paint has to be applied in delicate layers and glazes. You can’t just brush it on the way you do with oil paint.”

After 10 years of scouring workshops and chatting up truck dealers, transport company proprietors, drivers, artists, craftsmen and suppliers, Kazi has pieced together an informal history of truck painting that she someday hopes to turn into a book.

In the late 1940’s, when trucks first began to deliver goods, each company developed its own logo so that illiterate people could recognize who owned the trucks. The transporters were more patriotic with trucks featuring crescent and star or miniature geographical maps of the country.

Although truck decoration initially mimicked camel caravans and oxcarts, the habit took a giant leap in the 1950’s. Hajji Hussain, a native of Gujarat settled in Karachi when he married a local woman. He was renowned for his murals and frescoes he painted in palaces. But palaces were rare in working-class Karachi. Hussain shifted gears, embellishing horse carriages and trucks with floral borders. The decoration did not remain discreet for long. People started to cover vehicles’ entire exterior surfaces.

In the 1960’s, the country’s economy boomed. The Bedford, a British-built truck with a rounded cab became the truck of choice. The country’s sole Bedford dealer was none other than the son of Muhammad Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s president from 1962 to 1969. And he made sure that Bedfords were the only trucks imported.

When Bedford stopped production some years ago, Japanese imports like Hino, Nissan and Isuzu came. The Japanese trucks have better fuel economy, superior brakes, longer wheelbases and bigger windshields, but still there’s nostalgia for the Bedfords.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the increasing sophistication of truck decoration began to reflect the growing wealth of the drivers and the rise of a new urban class who wanted to show off their new-found confidence, position and authority.

In Kazi’s view, truck cabs boasting a profusion of dangling mirrors and fringed silk and satin embroidery are direct descendants of the Sheesh Mahal (“mirror palace”), halls of mirrors and brocade found in palaces and forts in Lahore, Patiala, Jaipur and Agra. “The Mughals loved this play of light where one candle could illuminate a vast hall,” remarks Kazi.

Some of the more popular landscape scenes, those depicting the hunt, lions, grouse, deer, hunting lodges or mountain chalets, are taken straight out of Mughal court painting, she maintains.

But Haider Ali, the veteran painter doesn’t buy the theory. “I paint from photos the drivers bring me, designs they point out on other trucks, anything they want,” he says. “And if they don’t know what they want, I make up scenes from my imagination.”

The painting follows an unwritten code. The taj, or prow, above the cab is reserved for mosques and holy monuments. Side panels are for waterfalls, lakes, mountains, landscapes, hunting lodges and animals. The rear is for a single large portrait encircled by flowers, vines and geometric configurations.

Now, truck drivers feel they don’t have to boost their status with celebrities; their own sons are good enough. So the recent trend is that of drivers commissioning portraits of their sons.

There are even a handful of scholars and poets whom drivers commission to write original poetic inscriptions for their trucks or search out a few well-turned phrases by other authors. One classic line is “‘if your mother prays for you, it’s like a breeze from heaven.’” Some wordings are teasing, like, “I wish I was the book you are reading, so that when you fall asleep and the book falls on your chest, I would be so close to you.” In general, trucks display themes of distance and spiritual longing.

Many of the materials used also come from outside Pakistan, and they are put to uses the manufacturers never dreamed of. Artists turn necessities into an excuse to go wild. For example, reflective tape from Germany and Japan is cut, shaped and layered to create magnificent compositions while doubling up as reflectors on the unlit roads.

Regional idioms include calligraphy in Peshawar, geometric designs in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, woodwork in Baluchistan and camel-bone inlay work in Sindh. Sometimes, truck decoration mirrors the country’s demographic shifts. When Kashmiri woodcarvers migrated to Karachi in the mid-1980, many found work in these workshops. Their spidery filigree tracery soon began to pop up on the doors and taj crowns of local vehicles.

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