insight - The art of the rickshaw

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Late afternoon in Old Dhaka. The air is humid and clammy. The booming sound of the call to prayer from the Star Mosque is deafened by the cacophony of jangling cycle bells in the Tanti Bazar. Along Chittaranjan Avenue, dozens of cycle rickshaws are jammed in total gridlock. Nothing is moving.

 

Thankfully, I have decided to walk; although navigating a twisted pathway between rickshaws, food stalls, street sellers, and boisterous children is tricky. But there are surprises ahead. Stretching out in front of me is a dazzling display of colour. Every part of every rickshaw is hand painted with vibrant reds, shocking pinks, emerald greens, and golden yellows – not just the chassis, but the hood, seats, handlebars, footplate, and even the wheels have been decorated.


There are cartoon-style images of overweight Bollywood stars (they always come in threes), lions and tigers dressed as gangsters, images of the Taj Mahal floating on a lotus leaf, kitsch watery landscapes, and exotic birds with fine plumage. The most flamboyant rickshaws display tassels, twirls, and tinsel as well. It’s like walking into a psychedelic dream.


This is Bangladesh’s own folk art, called ‘moving graffiti’. In a drab and polluted city with few visual delights it seems out of place, but this is the way that Bangladeshis have chosen to express themselves. The idea of decorating cycle rickshaws began way back in the 1950s, shortly after the partition of India when East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was created. It is believed to have been a way for rickshaw riders – called ‘pullers’ – to compete for business. But it was in the 1970s, after the creation of the state of Bangladesh, that rickshaw art really began to flourish. In those days popular themes for rickshaw art ranged from grisly battle scenes to patriotic images of the new Bangladeshi flag.


One of the pioneers of rickshaw art, R. K. Das, who still runs a studio in Old Dhaka, began by portraying battles, animals, Himalayan landscapes, and futuristic city scenes. In those days there were few artists, and people queued up around the block to buy his art. Forty years later things have changed. Dhaka has transformed itself from a city of less than 100,000 people to a sprawling metropolis of some 13 million. Along with vast population growth has come an expansion of rickshaws. Estimates vary, but there are probably between 500,000 and one million rickshaws in the city.


I am wending my way north, heading for Bangsal Street (bicycle street). If you want a spare tyre, a pair of handlebars, bicycle seats, sprockets and chains, a shiny new mountain bike, or just someone to repair your rickshaw, this is the place to find it. But I’m in search of a rickshaw artist.


All along Bangsal Street are hole-in-the wall shops where mechanics, salesmen, and artists ply their trade. In one workshop I come across two boys in checked lungis seated cross-legged on the ground, painting metal plates.


“Coming inside madam? You are welcome,” says one. “You want to see rickshaw art?” His name is Ahmed. In broken English he tells me that he comes from a family of rickshaw artists whose craft has been passed down from father to son, then proudly shows me his collection of painted metal plates. There are seascapes, tranquil landscapes with paddy fields, mosques in lurid Technicolor, elaborate floral designs, and Bollywood gangsters.


“Rickshaw painting is the beauty of the rickshaw,” he says. “If people are seeing painting on rickshaw, they like to ride. It helps to attract more passengers.”


It’s a business with a clear hierarchy; everyone knowing their place. The people who make the rickshaws are called mysteris – the mechanics. The owners of rickshaw fleets are called maleks. Then there are the artists.


The whole process of constructing the rickshaw starts with a subframe which is delivered to the rickshaw maker – the mysteri – who sets his team to work. One mysteri builds the wooden passenger seat whilst another makes the seat cushion – a wooden box stuffed with coconut fibre and iron springs. It sounds uncomfortable, and it is. Another mysteri makes the hood, using a sewing machine and cut-out templates of patterns that are then sewn into the hood. Finally, the passenger seat is decorated with shiny drawing pins arranged in patterns. The final flourish is the rectangular metal plate made of recycled tin screwed to the back of the rickshaw, usually created by a skilled rickshaw artist.


Ahmed takes me round the back of his workshop to see some artists at work. One is starting to paint the patterns on the frame and another older one is working with a sewing machine, cutting out patterns from the templates that will be sewn into the hood. Most work is commissioned by the rickshaw owners, but some of their work is sold in the bazaars and shops.


I asked Ahmed how much money he makes but he was somewhat vague. So I contacted local entrepreneur Ahad Bhai, who runs a website selling rickshaw art. “A rickshaw artist will earn around US$35–65 or 3,000–5,000 taka a month, mostly from commissioned work. A malek will probably make around US$50–70 a month per rickshaw, depending on the location,” he said. “The metal plates sell for around US$20–25 in the bazaar.”


“The art of rickshaw painting is part of our culture, yet it is a dying art form,” says Ahad Bhai. “As there are more and more forms of public transport, rickshaw owners are putting less effort into making their rickshaws stand out with fine decorations.”


But despite this, rickshaw art is surviving. And its acceptance as an art form in its own right as a special genre is growing slowly. In March 2013 there was a festival of rickshaw art by 64 rickshaw artists at the University of Dhaka, and the city has hosted other rickshaw art exhibitions.


To help struggling rickshaw artists and to ensure that the art form survives, Ahad Bhai set up a business named Panther Social. One of his projects is a website called www.rickshawart.org, which sells rickshaw art online. Profits are not directly given to the artists but go to a foundation where they are converted into social benefits for the artists. 


“We try to promote rickshaw art at an international level. We also help the artists by purchasing their work at a premium price and by commissioning custom art pieces for our clients,’’ he explains.


Ahad is also exploring the idea of advertising on rickshaws to earn additional income which could then be used as part of his welfare programme.


Rickshaw art has the potential to become as distinctive a genre as urban graffiti or pop art, Ahad believes, but it needs financial backing and international recognition. To help achieve this Ahad exhibited at the Global Social Business Summit in Vienna in November 2012, which was attended by Queen Sofia of Spain.


Back on the streets of old Dhaka the traffic has just started moving, the cycle bells are jangling, and a chorus of rickshaw pullers are touting for my custom. But it’s getting late and my journey back to the suburbs of Gulshan is several kilometres. Sadly I don’t think I could make the journey quickly by rickshaw. But as night falls, I ponder on what I have seen and learnt. I muse on a vibrant city where incredibly enterprising people are struggling to make a living, but have found a way of expressing themselves in a unique form of folk art that simply must survive.



 

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