A Moving Riot of Color

Written by Kiran Wajid  •  Features  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

A-Moving-Riot-of-ColorTruck art has become a popular representation of Pakistani culture around the world. Beneath the bright colors is the language of symbolism and storytelling.

One of the most interesting features of Pakistani culture is the vision of trucks and buses covered in a riot of color and design. The vehicles may spit out diesel fumes and occupy the major part of the road, with drivers appearing to have a death wish but they certainly stand out due to the intricate artwork they are decked with.

Artwork on commercial vehicles is common in Pakistan as well as in many other countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and parts of Central and South America. In fact, the techniques and materials used to decorate vehicles are more or less similar in almost all these countries. Pakistani truck art, however, is distinct because of the pervasiveness of vehicle decoration - from trucks and buses to vans, taxis, animal carts and even juice vendors’ pushcarts (shared only by Afghanistan).

The process of decorating one’s vehicle is an expensive one. It costs up to Rs. 500,000 and around six to 10 weeks to complete on a truck. Since most vehicles belong to fleets, it is customary for the fleet owners to ask the driver to get the truck decorated at the coachwork shop at company expense as per his liking, even though most trucks and buses have similar colors and typography. Given that the owner as well as the driver does not stand to reap any economic benefits from decorating their vehicle and the art form is pervasive, it is safe to assume that every privately owned truck in Pakistan is decorated. It is also obvious that the motivation to have one’s vehicle decorated is purely emotional, sentimental and even religious. Often, the motifs found on these vehicles have more to them than mere aesthetic considerations. Furthermore, trucks are largely used for transporting cargo throughout the country and truck art is now considered one of the most popular forms of representational art in Pakistan.

Truck art in Pakistan has been extensively studied by both local as well foreign researchers and art enthusiasts, who have identified five different kinds of styles. The most commonly used is the Rawalpindi or Punjab style, which, as the name suggests, is found in (northern) Punjab, particularly Rawalpindi, Hasanabdal, Haripur and Gujranwala as well as Azad Kashmir. These trucks have an ornate metal cowling above the windshield and rely heavily on plastic appliqué in their decoration. Then there is the Swat style that is known for its carved wooden doors and limited use of plastic and hammered metalwork. The third is the Peshawar style, which is a mix between Rawalpindi and Swat, featuring carved wooden doors that are usually painted and have simple metal cowlings. The fourth is the Baloch form, based in southern and western Pakistan (Dera Ghazi Khan, Quetta and Karachi) and is the most elaborate because it extensively employs mosaic appliqué and chrome bumpers. Finally, there is the Karachi style, which is a combination of all the above-mentioned styles. One of the features of the Karachi style is the wooden relief work over the windshield, done in fluorescent paints.

The decorative motifs too can be divided into five categories: the idealised elements of life such as a utopian village, beautiful landscapes and women; elements of modern life, for example, political figures and symbols of patriotism; symbols such as horses, horns and items of clothing; religiously loaded symbols, such as eyes and fish; and obvious religious symbols and images, such as Buraq (the celestial horse believed to have carried the Prophet (PBUH) on a spiritual journey to heaven).

One can make sense then, of the Pakistani truck that at first glance appears to be an explosive expression of popular or folk art. The side panels are used to place the constantly moving driver in a social geography. The role played by the trucking company’s name and routes is self-apparent in this function, but other images, particularly romanticised or idealised naturalistic paintings, are equally significant. The nomadic nature of the driver is critical to his self-conception, consciously articulated by him in conversation and in the music he listens to. He pines for an imagined home from which he is absent by definition. The truck functions not only as his home away from home, but also as his means of livelihood and his partner. The last concern explains the general motivation to decorate the truck and to feminise it and endow it with bridal symbols.

The symbolism connected with the safety of the person and livelihood dominates the truck and also the trucker’s behavior (visits to shrines, religious stickers adorning the interior of the truck, etc). The need to avoid misfortune and gain good fortune provides a simple explanation for the talismanic objects, symbols and explicit religious motifs on the truck. However, their specific nature and placement give evidence that truck decoration functions linguistically and that the choice of motifs and their location are the syntax through which varying messages are conveyed. 

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