When Pakistan came into being in 1947, ways to identify institutions of a new country needed to be devised. Currency, postage stamps, passports, remembering to say Radio Pakistan rather than All India Radio and government stationery – all required attention.
Trucks used for transport of goods developed stencils for the three main companies. New Muluk (New Country), Sitara-e-Hilal (Crescent and Star) and Taj Mahal. Some tentative painted decoration crept in when Haji Hussain, a palace decorator from Kutch Bujh settled in Karachi. In the economic boom of the sixties, the fortunes of transporters grew as industries in Karachi needed raw materials from all over Pakistan. The pride of the new transporters was mirrored in the emergence of excessive decoration that has become the hallmark of Pakistani trucks. When in 1963, Gohar Ayub acquired the monopoly to exclusively import Bedford trucks, it inadvertently created a standard form for decorative elements that continued for decades until adapted for more modern, long-wheelbase trucks.
Images reflect social and religious values, spiritual longing, personal pride, favourite personalities, humour, nature – beautiful landscapes, fantastic gardens, hunting scenes or animals whose qualities are admired.
Vehicle decoration spawned an industry. The trucks, imported as cab and chassis, are constructed according to the needs of the decorators. The format of the original wooden structures is maintained for newer metal bodies to create continuity of compositional techniques. Seats are decorated, interior ceilings, flashing lights, reflective stickers and of course, spaces designed for poetry. While the transport company underwrites the cost, the motifs are selected by the truck driver, who needs to be encouraged to undertake gruelling journeys on badly-lit and dangerous roads. The decoration industry is also an art school with apprentices learning from ustads.
Access to transport has always been greatly valued. The conquest of distance and time is empowering. In 2005, 250,000 commercial vehicles travelled over 270,000 kilometres of roads in Pakistan, most of which were decorated and whose images, verses and messages were viewed by most of Pakistan’s population. This public sharing of art and personal philosophy is remarkable and, along with wall chalking, performs the role of an elaborate public access newspaper and art gallery.
Images reflect social and religious values, spiritual longing, personal pride, favourite personalities, humour, nature – beautiful landscapes, fantastic gardens, hunting scenes or animals whose qualities are admired (lions, tigers, the poet Iqbal’s falcon or shaheen). The most repeated theme is love and sweet romance, with hearts crossed by arrows, bleeding with unrequited love and veiled beauties staring enigmatically. Politics has gradually entered with images of Benazir, Mir Murtaza, Akbar Bugti, the urials of Balochistan or stickers of kalashnikov wielding Baloch. Little known are the coded stickers placed on the dashboard that indicate on whose payroll a truck is when it is stopped for bribes.
The composition devises reference from Rajasthani miniature painting. However, rather than nostalgia for past glory, one can see it as a subversive acquisition of the lifestyles of the privileged. This is indicated by use of terms like taj (crown), road da badshah (king of the road) and mirror work ceilings reminiscent of palaces. The truck itself is feminine, with parandas and beautiful eyes: “Waqt ney aik bar phir dulhan bana diya” (time has once again made me a bride).
The cypress of Indo-Persian poetry also becomes an image of ‘home’ for many truck drivers who are from mountainous areas of the north.
The images used are symbolic, intended less for sharing a physical observation and more for arousing particular kinds of emotions and aspirations. The saturated colours communicate the intensity of experience. As Horkheimer writes, “authentic culture persuades through its forms rather than commands through its content.” The trucks have a more sophisticated aesthetic than one is immediately aware of. Regional styles have evolved: Peshawar trucks are formally restrained with greater emphasis on the older style of Victorian lettering and cameo images placed two-thirds down the panel. High-bodied Rawalpindi trucks have every available space covered with intricate layering of coloured plastic filigree designs. Karachi trucks, followed by Lahore, still have the most painted imagery. A truck has to be seen at night on unlit highways, with its excess of reflectors and florescent stickers, to be truly appreciated.
Enduring images include the Buraq, a flying white horse with a woman’s face, symbolic of the spiritual journey (Mairaj) of the Prophet Mohammed; anything cherished is shown nestling within a rose, associated with the Holy Prophet. The peacock symbolises heavenly beauty, the parrot, humour and the eagle, ambition; the lion symbolises majesty, the tiger, aggressive power, the flowering plant in a vase or emerging from the mouth of a dead fish – prosperity and spiritual rebirth.
The cypress of Indo-Persian poetry also becomes an image of ‘home’ for many truck drivers who are from mountainous areas of the north. The wrapping of decorated metal over objects or architectural details is an old custom as seen on the doors of the shrine of Shah Latif Bhitai.
The act of decorating the truck is perhaps a parallel to placing a covering of scented red rose petals or brocade cloth on the grave of a Sufi saint in return for his prayers.
The truck is a talisman. The source of livelihood must be honoured for barkat or prosperity. Clues to superstition are all over the decorated truck: the eyes that ward off the evil eye: the manat cloths or religious pledges that hang from the truck body, a child’s shoe hidden in the radiator; poetry that suggests that the owner owes his prosperity only to God or his mother’s prayers. Every truck route is lined with shrines, outside which stand people day and night to collect a token coin or rupee to ensure a safe journey. The act of decorating the truck is perhaps a parallel to placing a covering of scented red rose petals or brocade cloth on the grave of a Sufi saint in return for his prayers.
Ultimately vehicle decoration is a cultural text. It has not only absorbed displaced craftsmen from all over the country, from Kashmiri wood carvers to the taazia makers of Karachi, but reflects the ideals and aspirations of ordinary people, trying to survive the difficult realities of everyday experiences. The aesthetic convention is invigorated, changed and renewed as a reflection of the present, speaking for the life of the individual in that moment of time when he has no other voice.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Karachi.
First published in THE DAWN OF ADVERTISING IN PAKISTAN (1947-2017), a Special Report published by DAWN on March 31, 2018.