The art of loving

In talking to the men who are deeply invested in this art form, Ally Adnan adds a personal and historical dimension to the familiar poetry and design of Pakistani truck art

The art of loving
“Our wives are not with us. Neither parents, nor children,” says truck driver Khalid Butt about time spent on the road. “Who else is there for us to love?”

Indeed, the life of a truck driver is filled with loneliness. Most drive for several days, and sometimes weeks, at a stretch. They return home for short periods of time in between long road trips.

“Our trucks are the only companions we have on the road,” adds Butt. “They know all our secrets. They mean the world to us. We want them to look good. We like decorating them and taking great care of these beauties.”

The Ustad – Alif Gul Sarhadi - with his students Photograph by Farhan Bogra
The Ustad – Alif Gul Sarhadi - with his students
Photograph by Farhan Bogra

“A man is born to take care of others,” adds Baba Dildar Shah, an older man, sitting nearby. “He wants to love, spoil and nurture others. Men do not marry for the reason that most people believe they do. They marry because they have a natural need for someone to love, to tease, to spoil and argue with. When a driver is away from home, the truck becomes the target of all the love, care, and attention a man is able to give. He is utterly devoted to his vehicle.”

The drivers sitting together at the Pir Wadhai Adda nod in agreement. Baba Dildar drove a truck for forty years before retiring. He loves to share anecdotes and stories from his career at the bustling bus station in Rawalpindi where he comes to have tea in the company of truckers each afternoon.

“There was this driver I trained,” remembers Baba Dildar. “His name was Aslam. He spent more than three lakhs on decorating his truck. That was a lot of money in 1980. I asked him why he did not give the money to his wife. ‘I can always find another wife,’ he said. “But where will I find the money to buy another truck?’ ” All the drivers laugh. They know that truck drivers’ lives revolve around their vehicles. And they understand the love drivers have for them.

Painted wheel
Painted wheel

The tradition of decorating trucks dates back to the 1920s when buses first arrived in India. Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport and Kohistan Bus Company were two of the first bus companies. In a matter of a few years, the number of companies operating buses grew to more than one hundred. In what quickly became a competitive business, the companies started employing artists and artisans, who had heretofore worked on decorating carriages, temples and palaces, to decorate their vehicles, in order to establish their brands and to attract customers. The practice of bedecking buses continued to gain in popularity as the years passed and found greater appreciation when trucks started arriving in the nineteen forties.

The partition of India and Pakistan marked the start of the truly Pakistani tradition of decorating vehicles. Artisans in the new country were deeply conscious of their new national identity. The Islamic motif of a crescent and star started appearing on buses soon after partition. Qur’anic verses and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) started appearing a few years later. Pakistanis were proud of the Islamic traditions of Mughal art and architecture. Mughal motifs, designs and styles greatly influenced truck decoration in Pakistan. In the early years, Pakistani artisans were reluctant to paint human figures and portraits on vehicles, given that orthodox Islam does not encourage such work. The taboo did not last long. Portraits of freedom fighters, sportsmen, film actors, and national heroes were added to the repertoire of truck decorators in the late fifties. At about the same time, birds and animals became popular with drivers who had a special liking for peacocks, lions and snakes.

A young artist at work
A young artist at work

The son of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan from 1958 to 1969, started importing trucks in the early 1960s, and ensured an enormous influx of the vehicles into the country. The number of trucks grew at an unwarranted, almost scandalous, rate. This was the start of the golden era of decorating trucks in Pakistan, an era that continues to this day.

The craft of decorating and painting trucks has continued to evolve. The work done today involves creativity, imagination, cultural understanding, and aesthetic skills. It is, therefore, a veritable art form, known all over the world as Pakistani Truck Art.

Art and culture in Pakistan has traditionally overlapped with that in India due to a shared history and with the Islamic world due to a shared religion. Truck art may well be the only art form that is uniquely Pakistani, indigenous to the country, and a true representative of its culture. As a nation, Pakistanis love to decorate. They decorate everything - mobile phones, remote controls, mirrors, music players, radios, book covers, and much else. Pakistani Truck Art is, in essence, a celebration of Pakistanis’ tremendous penchant for the beautification of any and everything. The art form is not limited to trucks anymore; rickshaws, Qingqi, buses, passenger vans, pick-ups, food carts, vendor pushcarts, water tankers and fuel trucks are now adorned with truck art. Fashion designers use the art form in clothes, handbags, jewelry and shoes. Furniture and decorative items with truck art are available and sold all over the world. Truck painting is seen in art galleries, in department store and in upmarket shopping plazas. It is the theme of many parties and events. Its ubiquitous presence is a part of Pakistani life.

Cushion Designed by Ally Adnan
Designed by Ally Adnan

Bold, original, novel and vibrant, this is Pakistani art at its best.

Bedford trucks were the first trucks that were imported to Pakistan on a large scale. Pakistani truckers developed a penchant for these trucks that they lovingly referred to as “rockets.” Much to the dismay of Pakistani truckers, their production was discontinued in 1986. Isuzu, Hino, Nissan, Mazda, Ford, Hyundai and many other trucks are now sold in Pakistan but the Bedfords continue to be the gold standard and are the iconic image of Pakistani truck art.

There are large teams dedicated to building, decorating and ornamenting vehicles. These include artists, artisans, craftsmen, electricians, technicians, welders, mechanics, woodworkers and several other people.

[quote]I usually spend a whole day with the driver before developing a plan for decorating the truck[/quote]

The process of decorating a truck can take anywhere from two weeks to six months and involves seven, often overlapping, stages.

Design Consultation
Frame Work
Engine Work
Body Work

The consultation with the truck driver is considered to be the most important part in the entire process.

“Truck decoration means a lot to drivers,” says master truck artist, Alif Gul Sarhadi. “The masters of this art know that making the trucker happy is of paramount importance. I usually spend a whole day with the driver before developing a plan for decorating the truck. One needs to know the origin of the driver, his religious persuasion, his interests in life, things he enjoys, the colors he likes and any other information telling of his character. A truck needs to reflect not just the wishes but also the personality of its owner. That is what I try to do and that is what I teach my students.”

A decorated rickshaw
A decorated rickshaw

[quote]"The best age for a young man to start is ten years"[/quote]

Sarhadi has trained a total of one hundred and twenty-three students in his thirty-year career. He currently has twelve students working with him. All training is on the job; students start with simple tasks and move on to more complicated activities as they progress. “The best age for a young man to start is ten years,” according to Sarhadi. “One learns quickly at that age. The hand is steady and the energy level high. A young student becomes productive in a matter of weeks but it takes more than five years to become a full-fledged artist.”

Decorating trucks is big business in Pakistan. There are six major centers of truck decoration in Pakistan: Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Swat, and Quetta. An estimated two hundred and fifty thousand people are employed in these centers.

[quote]Sarhadi has trained a total of one hundred and twenty-three students in his thirty year career[/quote]

Each one of the centers is known for its distinctive truck art. The relocation of artists from one city to another, and the individual tastes of truckers, have resulted in some amalgamation of techniques but each center continues to retain its unique identity. Karachi is known for disco art work which is created using flashing bulbs, glass and mirrors. Artisans from rural Sindh are known for adding intricate camel bone decoration to trucks in the center. Trucks decorated in Karachi use large amounts of Chamak Patti (brightly colored reflective tape) and electric bulbs. On the other hand, trucks from Lahore and Rawalpindi are immediately recognizable because of the ornate metallic prows, known as the Taj (crown), which are mounted above the windshields.  Plastic and hammered metal decoration is prominently feature in trucks from Rawalpindi. The work done in Peshawar uses wooden carving, especially for the doors, and geometric metal applique and motifs. Swat uses a lot of carved wood in the trucks which is usually left unpainted. Baluchi trucks tend to be large and have loud and exaggerated ornamentation.

The sugarcane man
The sugarcane man

While flowers, leaves, birds, animal and fish are of course the most popular motifs, truckers have started having images of their children and other family members painted on their trucks too. Images of wives, however, remain conspicuously absent in truck art, probably due to issues of purdah and possibly because of the belief that real men do not miss their wives.

[quote]Karachi is known for disco art work which is created using flashing bulbs, glass and mirrors[/quote]

However, the most charming adornment of Pakistani truck art is poetry.

Trucks are considered to be female, beautiful and, even, sensual. It follows naturally that poetry is used to describe the virtues of these treasured vehicles. Obviously, this ‘poetry’ is rarely, if ever, of a high literary quality, but its immediacy and sentimentality makes it an enduring part of Pakistani popular culture, cutting across social strata.

Mera yeh dil sirf teri hi muhabbat ke liye hai, yeh pehskash magar bari mehdood muddat ke liye hai
My heart is available exclusively for your love, but the offer is valid for a limited time only.

Hut, munni nashay main hai
Get out of the way, this baby is stoned. 

Utoon Utoon jhali eh, wichon changi bhali eh
On the surface, she seems innocent but in reality, she is razor-sharp.

Wo dekho mastani ja rahi hai
Look, high on life, she flies through the road.

The poetry includes self-deprecating humor, proverbs and words of wisdom. Collectively, it is a chronicle of the lives of truck drivers in Pakistan, their travails, hardships, joys, misfortunes and delights.

Qismat aazma chukka, muqaddar aazma raha hun, aik bewafa ki khatir, rickshaw chala raha hun
Having tried my luck and having wrestled with my fate, I now lead the failed life of a driver for the love of my uncaring beloved.

Sajjan koi koi, dushman har koi
There are very friends in a world full of enemies

Malik ki gaari, driver ka paseena, chalti hai road par, ban ke haseena
The beauty races down the road, thanks to the effort of the driver and the money of the owner.

Lag gayi te rozi, na lagi te roza
The day may bring money or it may bring hunger.

Horn ahista bajayein, qaum so rahi hai.
Please be quiet, the nation is asleep.

Although poetry on trucks focuses on a seemingly unlimited number of themes and topics, there is one taboo area, anything derogatory about the truck itself. The love for the revered trucks is inviolable and sacrosanct and the verses inscribed on it always sings the praises of a truck’s beauty, appeal and speed.

tft-31-p-16-i tft-31-p-16-i

[quote]The Islamic content of truck art is largely non-denominational and surprisingly inclusive and tolerant[/quote]

As in everything else in Pakistan, religion also features prominently on trucks. Quranic verses and ahaadees, images of the Kaaba and other holy sites, the shrines of Muslim saints, pictures of the Buraaq, and Islamic motifs adorn Pakistani trucks in the form of painting, applique and ornaments. The Islamic content of truck art is largely non-denominational and surprisingly inclusive and tolerant. It bears testimony to what many truck artists say: truck art is about love and has no room for hate.

Revered, respected and recognized as a true art form all over the world, truck art comes at a price.

“I have seen drivers who spend as much as half the cost of the truck on decorating it,” says Ali Gul Sarhadi. “Decoration and ornamentation adds many tons of weight to a truck. The heavier the adornments, the greater the fuel consumption. Building beautiful trucks is not for the frugal and the faint hearted.”

Pakistani Truck at Smithsonian
Pakistani Truck at Smithsonian

Master painter, Haider Ali, believes that beautifying a truck is a spiritual exercise. “One honors the truck by taking care of it,” says Ali. “If the truck is not honored, the driver will not rewarded with happiness on the road. It is a matter of spiritual give and take. No material benefit is gained by decorating trucks.”

Indeed, it is difficult to see any tangible benefits of decorating trucks. Truck decoration costs are huge. A lot of time is spent off the road during the beautification. Decreased fuel efficiency results in increased expenditure. These factors add up to huge sums of money, and customers do not care about the looks of trucks used for carrying goods. They just want to use trucks to transport their goods efficiently and inexpensively.

So why do truckers invest so much money, love, time and effort in decorating their vehicles?

Shauq da koi mull naeen