Bangladesh is a delta country formed by the confluence of three mighty rivers—the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna—as they wind their way into the Bay of Bengal east of the Indian subcontinent. A little larger than Greece, almost the size of Wisconsin, it is one of the world's most densely populated nations; its people are predominantly Muslim. In modern times, this land was first part of India, and known as East Bengal; it then became East Pakistan after the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947; and became Bangladesh—"Land of Bengal"—after a bloody war of secession from Pakistan in 1971 and 1972.
Vast numbers of the inhabitants, originally Hindu and Buddhist, converted to Islam from about the 12th century onward, as various kingdoms of the subcontinent came under the sway of Muslim rulers from the north (See Aramco World, November-December 1991). When the area fell under the control of the British East India Company in the 18th century, it was famous for its agricultural wealth and its cloth manufactures. The local weavers were especially known for their gossamer-fine silk and cotton "muslin," a bolt of which, it was said, could be pulled through a finger ring.
Today, Bangladesh is still a predominantly agricultural country: Some 80 percent of its people live in farming villages and the country's few industries are jute mills, small manufacturing concerns and clothing factories owned by multinational corporations. The ordinary people of Bangladesh—about 90 percent of the population—live below what even they consider to be the poverty line. Every year, growing numbers abandon the farming life and leave their villages to seek jobs in the cities. Dhaka, the nation's capital, is one such magnet.
For foreigners, most visits to Dhaka begin at the international airport, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) outside the city. The taxi ride into town starts off on exceedingly wide, empty streets that grow progressively narrower and more crowded as they near Dhaka's outskirts. Here autos and trucks become enmeshed in the coils of meta-traffic: herds of goats on leashes, lines of cattle being driven to slaughter, jam-packed buses, trucks, autos, man- or ox-drawn carts, and pedestrians filtering across and through this flow without regard to traffic signs or police. Most embroiling of ail, cycle rickshas by the hundreds close in as one nears the city center. These three-wheeled pedal-powered vehicles have collapsible plastic baby-buggy hoods that shade the passenger seat, and can carry up to four people, or even cargoes of coconuts, jute, oil drums and the like.
The visitor marvels at them—not only at their density, but at the sight of the world's largest moving art gallery: the multiple painted pictures and other decorations which adorn most of the cycle rickshas as well as the motorized three-wheeler "baby taxis." Wanting a closer look, the traveler begins to resent the speed of her own dodge-'em taxi and calls out to the driver: "Slow down: I want to see this!"
In amazement, the visitor scans ricksha after ricksha, arranged in ragged lines on either side of the avenue, each one brightly decorated to within inches of the large, heavy wheels. The driver who pedals the ricksha is dressed in the typical work outfit of Bangladesh: a shirt, sleeveless or otherwise; a lungi, or plaid cotton sarong, which reaches his ankles; a cotton towel around his head or neck; and perhaps a pair of lime-green plastic sandals. Riding behind the driver on the ricksha seat, often semi-covered by the hood, the customer sits, patiently waiting out the traffic jam, usually resigned to arriving late at his or her destination.
Most rickshas are colorfully decorated, though many show signs of age and deterioration. The newest, shiniest models are, as one Bengali put it, "as gorgeous as a bride going forth for the first time to her in-laws." The ribs of the hood are covered with a sheet of fitted plastic appliquéd with cutouts of colored, goid or silver plastic in traditional Dhaka design medallions, some of which contain at the center a red or blue rose, a peacock or a burning candle. Golden butterflies or stars and crescents may surround each medallion. A new ricksha hood may also wear a crown (mukut) at the top, on which is painted an emblematic image of the Ka'bah and the name of God, or a blessing written in Arabic across its base.
The aluminum sheeting on the back of the ricksha boasts multiple decorations of various kinds, such as circular or heart-shaped outlines of ornamental nailheads surrounding painted roses or peacocks, or a painted emblem with the ricksha maker's name; below this is the backboard painting, a separate rectaner's choice of imagery. Favorite themes may be religious or secular, and include mosques, Taj Mahals, popular movie stars, animal fables, farm animals, jungle animals, bird scenes and many others. The larger, motorized baby taxis often have an entire side painted with a Bengal village scene of little thatched houses near a pond, or huge animals in combat, such as an elephant and a tiger wrapped in lethal embrace.
Looking at the ricksha from the front, one sees the passenger on his seat, framed by a fancy hood with tinsel and dangling doodads on its edge, under which a thin nylon curtain is discreetly drawn back on either side. One never sees this little "veil" unfolded: It is pure decoration. If a woman observing strict purdah wishes to hire a ricksha, someone from her house will pull a black cloth entirely around the upper part of the vehicle, completely obscuring seat, hood and rider and leaving only the driver visible.
The ricksha seat has a wooden frame, contains coconut-husk fiber padding and perhaps some springs, and is upholstered with a plastic material painted with characteristic designs. The seat-back shows images similar to those of the backboard; the seat itself is always painted with a lotus design. The edge strip of the seat, behind the rider's legs, is emblazoned with the rickshaw maker's name framed by birds or flowers. Makers decorate the shiny tin-covered footboard—often made of flattened biscuit tins—with additional shiny nailhead designs, often in the shape of a heart pierced by an arrow, or of geometric patterns inlaid with colored plastic. Needless to say, the colored plastic does not last long under the scuffing of riders' feet. The ricksha also features a decorated plastic bicycle seat for the driver, plastic strips on the handlebars which fly in the breeze, and a bouquet of plastic flowers between the handlebars.
Since the early 1970's, when makers first began to decorate their vehicles in earnest, trendiness has been the controlling esthetic ideal. By the early 1980's the English word "disco" began appearing in the Bengali language, spurred by the circulation of videotapes featuring American television dance programs. By this time, some ricksha makers had already begun installing transistor radios just above the footboard; rickshas so equipped became known as "disco" rickshas. Indeed, when I visited Dhaka in 1981, anything that was a trendy Western fashion—including the Mickey Mouse watch that one shopkeeper proudly displayed on his wrist—was immediately labeled in the bazaars as "disco."
Ricksha arts flow with the times, and what one sees on many of the vehicles often reflects current political passions or conflicts. Widespread decoration of rickshas began during the separation from Pakistan, when the doyen of ricksha artists in Dhaka, R.K. Das, began portraying battle scenes. Many rickshas of that era bore paintings of Mukti Bahini fighters in action. Others simply showed scenes of air or sea combat, the new Bangladeshi flag, or animals in combat.
Ricksha decoration continued, with one fad following another: first movie scenes, then birds on every panel, then fantastic Himalayan landscapes, animal fables, and futuristic city scenes with crisscrossing aerial roadways, complete with rushing trains, buses, minivans and stretch limousines, usually colored bright red. (Lately, compact cars have begun replacing the limousines in such scenes.) While much of the subject matter of ricksha art changes with the times, three classic images remain perennially interesting to both makers and owners: jungle combat, peaceful farm animals and birds.
Roughly one-fourth of the rickshas are decorated with Islamic themes. A favorite religious image for the backboard is the mosque with its ablution pool, or the Taj Mahal floating on a lotus or water lily, an image created originally by Das. Another favorite is a little boy praying before a Qur'an stand; above him are representations of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah and renderings of other religious themes, borrowed from ever-popular calendar scenes. Hoods and seat-backs are sometimes decorated with plastic applique cutouts showing a vase of flowers, often with a bright gold or silver Islamic crescent and star in their midst.
Nationally, ricksha artists stand at the pinnacle of the entire ricksha manufacturing industry. Some are famous in their field, their works favored by many ricksha owners, who are usually the final arbiters of what types of decorations go on their vehicles. These painters or artists do backboards and seat-backs on commission. Some also paint upholstery for sale to ricksha-furnishing shops or vehicle manufacturers.
The three best-known ricksha artists in Dhaka are Das; Alauddin, whose usual signature is "Naj"; and Ahmed Hussain, who signs himself "Ahmed Art." These artists create many other kinds of commercial art as well, including movie posters, calendars and advertising signs. Das enjoys painting movie-star scenes, Naj prefers animals and animal fables, and Ahmed Art does a wide variety of themes—whatever the purchaser demands. Naj has his own vigorous style of doing animals, and shows a marvelous sense of humor in his animal fable scenes: tigers and lions watching television, or carrying a bride in a palanquin to her new husband's village, or a turbaned lion VIP in an open car receiving garlands and homage from elephants and deer.
Over the years, ricksha artists have drawn inspiration and images from such printed media as wall calendars, high-tech advertisements and children's books sold in the bazaar. I once found a ricksha seat-back painting that could only have been copied from a "Birds of North America" calendar; the birds shown are certainly not found in Bangladesh. In addition to copying images, ricksha artists create their own compositions out of borrowed elements. Since about 1986, some artists have enjoyed painting the faces of movie stars in surrealistic colors: garish blues or greens or, currently, lurid shades of purplish pink.
From time to time, municipal governments decide that enough is enough, and crack down on the more vulgar expressions of ricksha art; but the campaigns do not last, because rickshaw art is truly popular in the broadest sense of the term. In Dhaka, the government—and many automobile owners—would like to ban rickshas from the streets entirely, because they slow down motor traffic. But experts, both foreign and Bangladeshi, point out that these rickshas provide thousands of jobs for landless workers who move to the cities every year, as well as thousands of other jobs in the small manufactories that serve the ricksha trade. Rickshas may be slow, but they do not pollute the air and they are, as it were, recycled.
Members of Bangladesh's social elite often disdain popular art as vulgar and lacking true worth: Art, for them, is the same as "high art" in Europe or the Americas. Indeed, Bangladesh has its share of fine artists, some of whom, such as the late Zainul Abedin, have achieved international reputations.
But in the streets of Dhaka, popular art reigns. Ricksha owners, who may possess only three vehicles or operate fleets of as many as 500, compete with one another for renown through the flamboyance and innovation of their rickshaw decorations. Their audiences—drivers, passengers and bystanders alike—find their dreams of love, wealth and power, their delight in animals, their nostalgia for the rural countryside or their love of religion all expressed in the colorful art of the ricksha.
Joanna Kirkpatrick teaches cultural anthropology at Bennington College and has been doing research in South Asia since 1965. She is finishing a book on ricksha arts in Bangladesh and gathering material for another on vehicle arts around the world.
Kevin Bubriski has lived and photographed in South Asia for more than eight years; his photographs have been extensively exhibited in the United States.