Meaning is always in process, what has been called “a momentary stop in a continuing flow of interpretations of interpretations”. This paper pauses at some facts and some observations about decorated trucks of Pakistan, a subject that has elicited tantalizingly few studies.
Pakistan is often presented geographically and thus historically as the corridor of land between the mountain passes that separated the near East from the plains of India. Less mentioned and more significant is its identity as the valley of the River Indus which has historically been the main means of transport of goods from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea and for many years was also a key component of the silk route. The people of the Indus Valley Civilization (c.2500 BC) used the river as a highway. Today the Mohanas, an ancient tribe of river people still live on the Indus River, on elaborately built wooden boats.
Although there is an extensive network of railways and roads, much of rural Pakistan still relies on ox carts and camels for transportation of goods. Each of the forms of transport used are honoured with their own form of decoration – the river boats are carved, the seafaring boats are brightly painted and dotted with decorative motifs, animals are decorated with henna designs, or complex patterns created with a partly shaved coat and of course the more conventional decorative reins and saddles. Urban centres have decorated rickshaws and so on. However, none of this prepares us for the decorated trucks that are a familiar sight in every town and highway in Pakistan.
Trucks were first introduced in Karachi in the 1930s by the American company, General Motors. They imported and assembled saloon cars and trucks: their own Chevrolet trucks as well as the English make Thames and later Bedford, a maker of Vauxhall. In 1963, General Motors was taken over and re-named Ghandhara Industries. Ghandhara Industries exclusively imported Bedford, a maker of the English manufacturers, Vauxhall, unwittingly creating the site for an elaborate cultural activity and market to flourish in. The economic prosperity of the 60’s meant the growth of industries and consequently a great demand for transportation of goods. This encouraged entrepreneurs to become dealers for Bedford and to establish fleets of trucks. In 1971, the new government nationalised many industries including Ghandhara which became National Motors. However, a new private firm, Ghandhara Motors, which has now become Ghandhara Nissan Diesel Ltd was established.
After the late 70’s, Japanese made Nissan, Isuzu and Hino entered the market with better technology and greater tonnage capacity. Dealers had better profit margins with the new makes. The irony is that Bedford was still the preferred truck amongst drivers who have an affectionate term for it – the Rocket (because of its slow speed). Bedford continued to be marketed until about 1990 when Vauxhall sold Bedford to AWD, a British engineering company who within a year themselves went into liquidation.
Although no new Bedford are being manufactured, they are still in use, rebuilt over and over again and never discarded as scrap. Bedford is still unofficially manufactured by a few companies in smaller towns that have found a market in their continuing popularity.
Bedford was imported as knockdown kits and assembled according to market requirements. The trucks arrived in the market as cab and chassis. Then the truck market took over, customising and decorating it until it was completely transformed. This includes building the body – a flatbed for container loaders, a high body for goods, a low body with a standing galley for sand trucks and a cylindrical construction for water or petrol.
The high body and the sand trucks create the best space for decoration. Every possible area is used for decoration including the petrol tank and the hubs. However, the main areas are the cab doors, the open air structure above the cab in which the cleaner and, during stops, the driver sleep, the sides of the main body, the back of the high bodied trucks which is made of seven numbered planks that can be removed, the interior of the cab and on sand trucks there is an additional standing area for the labourers who load and unload the sand. The body of the truck is heavily decorated with a mixture of images, borders, sign writing and poetry.
A variety of devices are used from enamel hand painted scenes, images and borders to filigree layered coloured Perspex, elaborate collaged florescent sticker patterns, reflectors, mirror work and carved and inlaid wood. The trucks have a more sophisticated aesthetic than one is immediately aware of with dominant colour schemes and thematic imagery. There is usually a large single image at the back, of a favourite film star, politician, a mystic dancing horse, the buraq – half flying horse half woman, a famous building, a sunset or a single flower. Images of reality such as F-16s or the latest political hero are disarmed within the ambient fantasy landscapes of impossible sunsets and mythological beasts. The sides of a high body will be composed in panels although occasionally a single image may run across the whole side. The top of the cab, or the Taj, will have a rose or a mosque or foliate patterns in carved and painted wood or mirror work. The rest of the body is busily filled with a range of related images and borders. Poetry is an important part of truck art with verses ranging from the humorous and irreverent to the deeply philosophical. There is room for humour, for political observation. But the enduring theme is love and sweet romance with hearts crossed by arrows, bleeding with unrequited love and veiled beauties staring enigmatically.
The interior of the cab is also baroquely decorated with brocades encased in plastic, coloured lights, mirror work, and music by the few favourites of truck drivers. A truck has to be seen at night on unlit highways for all its excess of reflectors and florescent stickers to be truly appreciated.
Today most truck bodies are fabricated in steel, but keep the same proportions as the wooden bodies.
Regional styles have evolved. Peshawar trucks are formally restrained with greater emphasis on the older style of large lettering dominating the sides and small cameo images placed according to a strict canon two thirds down the panel. Rawalpindi trucks, on the other hand, have every available space covered with intricate decoration fusing painted images with layered coloured plastic filigree designs and motifs. Karachi trucks still have the most painted imagery and make free use of florescent colours. All trucks have to pass through Karachi which is the main port.
The trucks of the 30s and 40s were simply painted with a protective coat of one colour with some simple single colour stencil decoration. The stenciled images on trucks merely elaborated the names of the truck companies presumably for those who could not read. The three main companies were New Muluk (New Country) Sitara-e-Hilal (Crescent and Star) and Taj Mahal. This extent of decoration remained for a couple of decades. One may have inclined to agree with Coomaraswamy that “for the first time in history we created an industry without art”. This did not remain the case for long.
One of the claimants for establishing the beginnings of truck decoration was Haji Hussain. Haji Hussain came from a long line of Kamangars (bow and arrow makers) turned court painters in Kutch Bujh, Gujarat. At the Partition of India, he brought his skills in painting murals, decorative ceilings, and statuary to Karachi where his father-in-law was already decorating the mansions of Karachi’s rich. Haji Hussain was encouraged to turn to decorating trucks by a local artist, Ghaffar Sindhi, who decorated horse carriages.
Haji Hussain added to the stenciled trucks, his repertoire of imagery starting with simple images of birds, flower vases, a telephone with a woman’s hand picking up the receiver on which the company’s telephone number was written. As interest grew with the boom in transport business in the 60’s, the decorative devices became more elaborate and with the contributions of others, evolved into the baroque trucks of today. Many of Haji Hussain’s apprentices have become Ustads in their own right establishing painting and decorating workshops all over Pakistan.
Today his sons and grandsons carry on the tradition of chitarkari, painting trucks, sign writing or decorating furniture and decorative light panels with Yusuf, the eldest, as the Ustad or Master.
Since the last century, industrialisation and urbanisation brought about many changes in society. In the past, skilled artisans would produce hand crafted goods in return for board and lodging especially between agricultural harvests. Sixty four crafts are mentioned in ancient Indian texts. This interdependent barter based society was soon changed to a wage based cash economy that could not be supported by the older system.
In addition, Colonial powers did not maintain the structure of state patronage. The British official considered miniaturists “deficient in a knowledge of all those refinements of the art which (were) to be acquired by taste being rightly directed” (C.S.Francis Sketches of Native life in India). Through the Doctrine of Lapse, whereby in the absence of a direct heir, the British Government owned the riyasat or kingdom, the smaller regional kingdoms and fiefdoms that supported artists after the collapse of the Mughal court were disempowered. Instead, crafts schools were established throughout India to create designs with the right proportion of exoticism palatable to British taste. Framed paintings replaced murals. Some painters were patronized but only to produce ethnographic studies of local life.
The introduction of the printing press made possible the sale of lithographs and woodcuts – replacing the need for murals. Religious properties lost financial support, often becoming offices for British officers. Decorative items like tiles, as was the case with textiles, began to be imported from Britain and were used for embellishing buildings instead of hand crafted items.
Inevitably, there was a migration and displacement of skilled artisans. Many skills disappeared as the next generation turned to other ways of earning money. Some artisans moved to urban centres, adapting their skills to various market requirements from the building trade to small low technology workshops producing machine parts. There was, of course, a historical precedent for exchange of skills, not least the spread of Islamic empires including those of the sub-continent that encouraged the migration of craftsman, a major contribution to the growth of art. However these exchanges were based on enhanced value of skills and not displacement.
Vehicle decoration has been one of the more positive absorbers of these re-located skills. It is possible to read truck decoration as a gathering of regional crafts, from Kashmiri wood carving to mural painting from Gujrat. This eclectic nature of truck art has been the main factor of its ability to absorb and create new styles. If a skill exists, a place will be created to utilise it. Florescent stickers are converted to complex collaged images or a C-D Rom becomes a number plate on a Vespa scooter. This willingness to adapt existing skills to incorporate new products keeps vehicle decoration vital and contemporary.
Another sub-text to the reading of the development of decorated transport is the subversion of class. Along with the atomizing of social structures as elaborated, the Raj re-invented the dominant classes creating people who were encouraged to view the British way of life as progressive and desirable.
A popular sub-culture, however, continued its path unnoticed through all the historical periods of the region, changing or not, absorbing or rejecting new influences. While some cultural events such as Taazia processions have mostly remained as they were for a thousand years, others such as wedding celebrations, have changed with lifestyle.
Partition itself created a displacement of social hierarchies, a dismantling of power structures that were rapidly replaced by new ones both at the political, economic and social levels. People who once lived in havelis or mansions were living in temporary tin shelters, those who were at the periphery of Empire now found a dominant voice.
Truck art is a very visible indicator of this change. Truck owners, mostly tribal and uneducated now had access to craftsmen that were reserved for the ruling classes of a recent past. The images on trucks reflect the interests and pastimes of the upper classes – hunting deer, falconry, and the hunting chalet presented as an image of paradise, gardens of leisure peopled with peacock and grouse, travels to far off places. Literary references, e.g. The Buraq, well-known among poets from Persian traditions. And all trucks, in fact all decorated vehicles, have a mandatory verse usually full of bittersweet longing or nostalgia in the tradition of classical Urdu poetry.
The cab itself can be seen as a king’s throne room. The structure above the cab, called tellingly a taj or crown, recalls the Jharoka or balcony from which the king would see and be seen. The seats refer to the rich silk and brocade textiles associated with kings, the ceiling is adorned with interpretations of the sheesh mahal or the palace of mirrors, a favourite architectural device of Mughal kings. The Palace became accessible to the new “Kings of the Road” as they often write on their vehicles.
However, this is not to say that Truck Art is nostalgia for a past order. On the contrary it is a claim, a subversion; a culture outside paternalistic considerations; a space for the generation of a popular culture outside the controlling influence of the dominant classes. There is no concession to taste or to acquiring status. There is rather a disinterest in what has now become the other. It is a question of sampling what there is access to. It is exercising the power of acquired wealth. The paintings depict the animals and scenic views most admired by the common man both for the qualities they represent as well as the lifestyle they imply – an ideal quite removed from their everyday experience of dry dusty routes and crowded cities.
The Art of the aristocracy was obliged, in a sense, to represent continuity of power which it did by re-enforcing established canons. Popular art, however, serves a different time frame. Although it uses a convention as the vehicle for the idea, it can be invigorated, changed or renewed because ultimately it is a reflection of today, the present – which somehow speaks for the life of the individual in that moment of time when he has no other voice.
All decorated vehicles no matter how old the model, when repainted will write the year it was painted as the date of the model. In other words, the painting becomes the authenticating “document”. No symbols are being created for posterity. After a punishing year or two on the road, the painting will be sprayed over and redecorated. This allows the works to adapt and reflect change through imagery and icons. New materials that appear in the market are immediately given a space in existing art forms which are in this way constantly being renewed and revitalised. Eccentric Japanese wall clocks will find their way into Taazia decoration, reflective tape has created a whole new style of Truck decoration. These urban crafts have their own acceptable or unacceptable aesthetic rules. The innovation becomes more meaningful poised as it is on the edge of change and tradition.
This brings us to the other player in the development of this art: not the owner but the artist himself. There is an unspoken understanding that within the broad requirements of the owner, the artist is trusted and given the respect to use his own aesthetic solutions. Before we make a neat assumption of having “understood” what Truck Art is about we need to turn our attention to the images themselves and the aesthetic they represent.
It is apparent that these images are what Coomaraswamy calls “memory pictures”. Apart from underlining the fact that this is a reflection of a lifestyle and not the lifestyle itself, it also indicates the layered complexity of Truck Art. Even in portraiture only the ideal is represented. The degree of realism, is merely a reflection of the keenness of artist’s memory and observation. The artist makes the forms which he is familiar with and which appeal to his imagination. Realism is not the issue.
The idea of the memory picture is not just a matter of lack of opportunity for direct observation but rather related to both Muslim concepts of Fana and Hindu concepts of Maya. The appearance is not the reality. The intention is not about communicating a physical observation but arousing particular kinds of emotions and aspirations. This was a device used e.g, in Ragamala paintings, in the canons of poetry and particularly by the sufi traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The saturated colours communicate the intensity of experience and are a device used for festival decoration to enhance the experience and its significance. The imagery is primarily symbolic, either consciously or as an unquestioned hand down from tradition referring to literary and religious sources. Symbols become points of entry, gateways to a glimpse of eternal truths.
Some examples are:
The Buraq, a commonly used image of a flying white horse with a woman’s face based on literary references, is symbolic of the spiritual journey (miraj) of the Prophet Mohammed to the seven Heavens and to God. The image evolved through the works of Persian poets such as
Fariduddin Attar, Nizami and the Turkish poet Ghanizade in whose work the Buraq, which means lightening, evolved into the mythic flying horse with a woman’s face and a peacock’s tail. The savior on a white horse and of the winged beast and the pari also exists in legends across the Middle East region and is also seen in Indian legend as, e.g., Kalki, one of the avatars of Krishna and Garuda, the flying bird that carries Krishna.
Traditions of the Near East and Central Asia, abound with composite animals and even a seal from the Indus Civilization, show a bull with a human face, the trunk and tusk of an elephant and hind legs of a tiger. The Mughal Emperors, Akbar and Jehangir, developed pictorial carpets with winged horses, dragons in forests and fantasy folklore. The Ancient Indian texts, the Puranas, also mention 16 composite animals each with 16 poses i.e. 256 forms that serve to ward off the evil eye.
A variety of birds are painted. The parrot is a symbol of humour coupled with intelligence. The eagle is, as everywhere, a symbol of ambition and power.
The cypress, a favourite symbol of Indo Persian poetry reflects the qualities of the perfect man. It also conveniently doubles up as an image of “home” for the majority of truck drivers who are Pathans, and so is a frequently used image.
The Red Rose is used in everyday life on all occasions from birth to death, a rose garland will celebrate the passing of an exam the completion of Haj, to honour the bridal couples, to decorate the bridal chamber, to spread over a grave or for no reason at all just to scent ones room or wrist. The tradition is that during the Miraj, drops of the Prophet Mohammed’s sweat fell to ground and a fragrant rose appeared. Generally, his presence is associated with the scent of roses. In Truck art, anything that is dear is shown nestling within a rose.
The flowering plant in a pot is a symbol of prosperity, of life and its gifts. At the classical end are, e.g., the naturalistically rendered Persian Guldans seen at Agra fort and the Taj Mahal. The motif, as it appears in folk art, is more symbolic.
The symbolism of the fish is less simple to trace. Its association with the river and the sea notwithstanding it has a complex heritage filtered through historical events and Indian astrology seen e.g, in the gateways of Lucknow architecture. In Indian Astrology, Ketu the Fish was the auspicious sign that led to success in an ancient battle after which it was incorporated in the coat of arms and adorns many gateways in Lucknow. In Hindu mythology, Krishna as Matsya, the fish, saved the sacred Vedas.
In Rajastani iconography, a multi armed headless god comes out of the mouth of a fish which, one may speculate, has been secularised in the motif of flowers springing out of the fish’s mouth, a repeated image on Pakistani trucks.
Animals presented as symbols of human qualities and human actions are a well-known tradition, dating at least from the Kalila and Dhimna, the inspiration for Aesop and itself inspired by the Sanskrit fables of Bidpai. Other well-known stories mentioning animals are Tota Kahani, Alif Laila, Bagho Bahar, Khwaja Sar Parast and the works of Luqman and Fariduddin Attar.
Animals such as the lion, an idol, represent manly strength and the ability to overawe the enemy. In Pakistan the lion has a special place in idiomatic language and is a symbol of male virility. The tiger is a more dangerous and violent element of subjugation and is often shown in a position of attack unlike the lion which is shown as majestic.
Coomaraswamy presents two descriptions of a lion, one Indian and the other Chinese. According to the Indian canon: The lion has eyes like the hare, a fierce aspect, soft hair long on his chest and under his shoulders, his back is plump like a sheep, his body is that of a blooded horse, his gait is stately and his tail long. The lion of the Chinese canon has a form like that of the tiger and with a colour tawny or sometimes blue. The lion is like Muku-inu, a shaggy dog. He has a huge head hard as bronze, a long tail, forehead as firm as iron hooked fangs, eyes like bended bows and raised ears. His eyes flash like lightening and his roar is like thunder.
The lion, he says, need not be like any lion on earth. Rather, the lion tells us something of the people who represented him.
Truck art re-interprets the court or aulic aesthetic through the folk art of Western regions of the sub-continent. The use of folk art techniques: circles, dots, lines, hooks, spades etc, can, of course, also be seen in the miniatures of Rajastan and Gujarat which use dots to highlight, simple black lines for folds, swift brush marks and a sure style coupled with the classical sense of composition, borders and scale change. The strong sense of colour in truck art is more vigorous than classical traditions and is used symbolically.
The wrapping of decorated metal over objects or architectural details is an old custom, as is the practice of decorating everything that is valued from temple to ghetto blasters.
Popular culture in Pakistan is defined by the shared codes of a sub-culture reflected in the film industry, vernacular architecture, festivals, pop songs, fashion, development of hybrid languages in urban centres and urban culture as a whole. Some of these categories have developed as market dictates. Vehicle decoration like poetry is different because more decoration on vehicles does not ensure better business – at least not at a worldly level. The W11, e.g., is a private passenger bus route that is known even across the border in India. The owners spend double the amount on decorating their vehicles than any other bus. It has the most decorated fleet, both the inside and outside, the best music and the best poetry written on the body. It has the longest route in Karachi. And they claim passengers never have to wait more than a minute and a half for a bus. The last two facts are probably the only commercially valid claims. The rest does not ensure more passengers and thus financial return.
In this sense the Truck is a talisman. If you press a truck owner beyond a simple “because it looks nice” to explain why he spends so much on decorating his truck when he would be reluctant to spend the same on home improvements, he will tell you that if he does not honour the source of his livelihood, there will be no “barkat” in his business. Clues to superstition are all over the decorated truck. The eyes that ward off the evil eye and keep a watchful God awake – a tradition that spreads from Turkey to roadside shrines in India, the manat cloths or religious pledges that hang from the truck’s body, the poetry that suggests that the owner owes his prosperity only to God, or that a mother’s prayer will open the doors of Heaven, or simply spread a message of good will to all. Every truck route is lined with shrines outside where people stand day and night collecting a token coin or rupee to ensure a safe journey. In fact at one level the act of decorating the truck is perhaps a parallel to the activity when visiting a shrine of showering scented, red rose petals or a cover woven with strung red roses or a gilt cloth on the grave of a shrine.
The role of the sufis in the development of vernacular poetry in Sindhi, Punjabi and Purbhi, is well-known.
Equally significant is its role in developing vernacular and popular art. The sufis were often manual workers. The patron saint of craftsmen was often a mystic and after his death, his tomb became a centre for craftsmen, especially at the annual Urs or gathering of devotees usually accompanied by a fair e.g, Bahauddin Naqshband of Bokhara who is the patron saint of weavers.
The path to God and Truth in sufi tradition is only limited by the limits of the imagination. This is expressed in the excessive architecture of mazars or shrines and the cult of the hyper real that links all expressions of popular culture. The 99 names of God re-enforces the idea of multiplicity to express the power of unity. Excess becomes a virtue.
In Truck art which is ultimately a cultural text, as in mazaar architecture, every conceivable material and form can be used for decorative devices and ornamentation. Truck artists create impossible dreamscapes, heady sunsets that bear no resemblance to the muddy oil soiled surroundings of truck stands. So the reality of reality is dismissed.
Ultimately of course, it is not what is painted that draws attention. As Horkheimer writes, authentic culture persuades through its forms rather than commands through its content.
The shrine is a cultural event, not a place. The mela or fair is an integral part of the shrine where there is acceptance of all. Society’s outsiders, mentally or physically disabled, those burdened by life’s trials, women with unhappy marriages, transvestites, the world’s tallest man, all are the same in the eyes of the Saint, all equally favoured for his intercession with God. It has been, and still is, the centre that fulfills the spiritual needs of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. The success of art and cultural expression in the sub-continent is linked to its ability to syncretise and assimilate both at the high art level and in popular art which has a more overt eclectic aesthetic.
Jung says man’s most vital need is to discover his own reality through the cultivation of a symbolic life
What could be very drab lives are interspersed with symbolic events and ceremonies. Ritual adds structure to lives, gives the illusion of empowerment in a situation of dependence and powerlessness. Real events such as birth, death and marriage are heightened to an intensity, cajoled into significance through ritual that elevates the commonplace by amplifying it as communal experience. When the shamianas or decorated tents go up in a local street or empty plot, when the glitter of lights hides the piled up dirt, and the bride is overdressed in red and gold, and her mother is unrecognisably glamorous after an appointment at the beauty parlour, then, for that evening, life is in control. As Susan Sontag has written “fantasy can…. normalise what is psychologically unbearable.” Young girls doomed to a life of domestic chores will often keep one hand beautifully manicured with glass bangles, ring and painted nails while the other, the working hand has no such adornment. Perhaps this symbolises the role of The Dream as a parallel existence in everyday lives.
Popular art is an important way of transformation. It is itself a ritual that overcomes isolation and silence. An anonymous mass produced truck is personalised to an unimaginable extent. It is an assertion that renders society’s invisible visible and becomes a claim for the human spirit to not be overlooked in an increasingly homogenising world.