Dekh Magar Pyar Say
Written by Umair Mohsin
Pakistani truck art embodies the culture, history, and traditions of the drivers, narrating dreams and stories of these people who are never really ‘home’. Karachi resident Umair Mohsin explores this explosive expression of folk art in which the actual form is an escape from the mundane realities of ordinary life.
The midday sun sears hot in Karachi’s bone-baking heat and humidity as I step into Haider Ali’s workshop near Hawke’s Bay in Karachi, an experience akin to being teleported to an Eastern remake of Alice In Wonderland.
There’s a metalworker creating repoussé tigers, and bento-box-inspired wood panelling is taking shape under its maker’s deft hands. A man with bright-orange fluorescent compounds – varnishes that illuminate in the dark – decorates the exterior of a truck with Mogul patterns mixed with shimmering gilt peacocks and fish twirls.
The interiors are retrofitted with outlandish ornaments and dazzling accessories fringed in silk and satin embroidery, crammed with cheap plastic flowers and miniature chandeliers. Through it all, the latest Bollywood tune crackles out of a tinny mobile-phone speaker.
To understand this art’s beginnings one must understand Pakistan’s geography and its people. Pakistan has no navigable rivers and no developed rail system. Road travel is therefore vital to Pakistan’s economy, yet of the roads – with almost 300,000km networking across the country – good ones are few and far between. In rural areas especially, there is poor or no signage, roads are potholed, and no street lighting is present. So it’s the functional aspects of extensive truck decoration that are important; the reflectors (chamak patti) and clanging metal warn other vehicles of the truck’s presence. Pakistani trucks, for all their ornateness, colour, and care, are still working trucks.
The truckers who drive these beasts are frequently stereotyped as brash and reckless, and are often marginalised by wider society. This is the driver who pines for a life from which he is absent. The image of his imagined home by the perfect stream in his village with birds flying overhead and his beautiful wife sitting waiting for him painted on the back of his truck perfectly showcases this lonesome profession. In this perpetual nomadic lifestyle, his truck functions as his home away from home, his means of livelihood as well as his companion.
Today’s truckers are considered the transitory successors of Neolithic merchants who once traded along similar routes from the southern shores of Pakistan to inland Central Asia. Their modes of transportation – camel caravans – were usually heavily decorated. We also see the roots of truck art in the horse-drawn carriages from the days of the Indian Raj, when craftsmen were employed to decorate the vehicles of the aristocracy.
Yet whilst the roots of this tradition date back millennia, today’s truck art is a recent phenomenon whose origins can be traced back to the 1950s, to the Karachi Kemari Port, which became the main route of trade after the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947. Initially, trade between the port and the rest of the country was handled via camels and donkey carts, which were used to load the railways providing goods to the rest of the country. The painters were used to painting camel, donkey, and horse carts, and these were also adorned with intricate accessories and ornaments made out of beads and wool.
In the sixties, Bedford trucks (mockingly called ‘rockets’ due to their slow speed) arrived from England, and animal-powered transport was gradually replaced. For the first time, trucks were also deployed for long-distance transportation of goods and merchandise, and so to differentiate their trucks and combat illiteracy, each company started painting its logo on its trucks.
Like the animal-cart owners, truck drivers considered their vehicles companions as well as a means of livelihood and, to honour that role, there was a general motivation to ornately adorn their trucks.
At that time, displays of solidarity with the young nation were popular, including the crescent and star of Pakistan’s flag, but gradually more detailed motifs developed. As the transport business boomed in the sixties, the trucks became badges of competition, and the more flamboyant the design, the better the business became. This inspired a competitive edge, not just between the truck owners but also the painters, who boasted of their newer and more creative designs.
The heady seventies saw an increasing sophistication in truck decoration, as it began to reflect the growing wealth of the drivers and the rise of a new urban class with its new-found confidence, position, and authority. The art has been evolving ever since, getting increasingly more political, personal, and ever more expressive.
Pakistani trucks, over time, have become a smorgasbord of moving culture tableaux. More recently, truck art has gained recognition not just as an art form, but as a viable mode of expression. Amongst the best fashion designers in Pakistan, Maheen Khan and Deepak Perwani have even taken inspiration from the motifs, colours, and patterns found in truck art to create innovative clothing designs.
In a short space of time, truck art has travelled a long way. It visually represents everyday experiences that embed themselves in the minds of those who serve the industry, embracing their ongoing battle with loneliness on the road, with only their trusty trucks for company.
Tribal Truck Art
Truck art has moved beyond trucks to adorn daily utensils and clothing, which can easily be purchased online. One online store that stocks these unique products is Tribal Truck Art: tribaltruckart.com
Maheen Khan is an award-winning fashion designer well known for her embroidered work for the film Snow White and the Huntsman and television series The Jewel in the Crown; her fashion line, Gulabo, was born of her love for truck art and all things Pakistani. “It is, in essence, a clothing line that promotes our culture, art, and architecture by making it iconic through fashion,” she says.
CANVAS ON WHEELS
For most of us, a car is just a car, but for many cultures worldwide, it is a canvas for expression, a direct extension of their personality. There are dozens of modification cultures out there; some of the most popular include:
Originating in the San Francisco Bay Area, scraper bikes are basically ordinary bicycles but with decorated spokes, candy-coloured pinwheels, and matching bodies, with aluminium foil rounding off the effect.
An abbreviation of 'decoration truck', these trucks look like something straight out of a Transformers movie and are possibly the most flamboyant customising trend on the planet.
Hand-built and colourful, with glittering ornaments, Jeepneys are the ultimate form of self-expression and no two are the same.
‘Low and slow’ is the motto of this movement. The paintings on these lowered classic cars reflect designs and motifs from the Latino culture.