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Young Reader's World

Masterpieces to Go: The Trucks of Pakistan; Written by Richard Covington, Photographed by Shahidul Alam / DRIKUnder the shade of a colossal tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion in hues of purple, yellow, red, and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies an undercoat of white paint to the wooden piece that juts above the truck’s cab like a crown. Ali was just eight years old when his father put a brush in his hand. Now, Ali is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who goes to school in the morning and spends his afternoons in the painter’s workshop. 

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In the workshop, a body repairman lies on his back beneath a 10-ton, six-wheel truck. He is stringing a chain of hammered steel leaves to dangle around the frame of the truck. When the truck is under way, these metal leaves will clang together creating a sound that is music to a driver’s ears. Above the repairman, a carpenter is chiseling out the wooden panels adorning the doors. Nearby, the truck’s owner sits observing the work in progress as an outdoor barber lathers his face for a shave. A crooning pop tune crackles out of a tinny radio and a pair of birds flutter noisily home to roost. Welcome to Garden Road, the traffic-choked heart of Karachi’s booming truck-painting industry.

In Pakistan, truck painting has turned village lanes, city streets, and long distance highways into a national gallery without walls. The vast majority of Pakistan’s trucks, buses, and motorized rickshaws are covered from top to bottom with eye-popping landscapes, portraits, poetry, religious verses, and wisecracking expressions. Pakistani film stars and athletes compete for space with figures from Greek myth and European icons like the Mona Lisa and Princess Diana. Some trucks become moving patriotic billboards with images of religious shrines or of verses written on a picture of an open Qu’ran, the sacred book of Islam. The inside of these trucks are often as brightly decorated as the exterior, with tiny mirrors and rick-rack ringing the windshield and swaying pompoms and wall clocks with flashing lights hanging from the ceilings.

The roots of the tradition date back more than nine millennia, says Kenoyer. "You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to." The roots of truck painting in Pakistan date back more than 9,000 years, according to Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, co-director of the Harappa Archeological Research Project. Today’s truckers are the successors of Neolithic traders who moved goods along roughly similar routes from the coast of Pakistan inland to Central Asia. According to the artifacts thus far uncovered at Harappa and other excavations sites, the traders used heavily decorated camel caravans. Today, Kenoyer says, “the paint jobs indentify competing ethnic groups, just as the different designs did on ancient pottery and later on fabrics and carpets. You can look at a truck and tell exactly what region it comes from and what ethnic group the driver belongs to.” 

Truck and bus painting and bodywork are also big business! In Karachi, a port city of 14 million on the Arabian Sea, more than 50,000 people work in small, family-run workshops that include apprentices and highly trained artisans, each with his well-defined specialty. The craftsmen all take pride in the fact that, although many of the symbols used are the same, each truck is truly unique. 

A stroll through the streets and alleys of the dusty Garden Road district, one of five Karachi neighborhoods devoted to vehicle decoration, offers an education in the truck painter’s art. In one open-air stall, a metalworker clothed in an knee-length, immaculate white tunic with matching prayer cap, hammers away at mudguard flaps, creating images of tigers and chevron designs that an assistant then tints bright red, yellow, and green. In a hole-in-the-wall shop nearby, a man surrounded by stacked cans of pigments and powders mixes electric orange fluorescent paint that will glow in the dark. Truck painting is a very skilled craft, especially since the paint must be applied to the truck in delicate layers and glazes.

Truck owners spend small fortunes on these designs. A basic paint-and-body job is a minimum of $2500, the equivalent of two years of the average truck driver’s salary. This labor-intensive operation usually takes six to ten weeks and, unbelievably, the majority of truckers splurge on a full makeover of their vehicles every three or four years!

"Truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistan, Kazi believes. "It's all part of our need to intensify experience." “Truckers don’t even spend so much money on their own houses,” marvels Durriya Kazi, head of the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi and a walking encyclopedia of Pakistani truck-decoration lore. “I remember one driver who told me that he put his life and livelihood into the truck. If he didn’t honor it with the proper paint job, he would feel he was being ungrateful.”

There are several reasons owners will pay such high prices to paint their trucks. Kazi is convinced that truck art tells a broader truth about Pakistan, “We have an irresistible tendency to decorate everything—from lowly tape cassette players to brides to trucks—because we’re such dreamers,” she declares. “It’s all part of our need to intensify experience.”

Ponderous but virtually indestructible, "rockets"--British-made Bedfords--are still the ultimate workhorses of the trucking industry throughout Pakistan. Practically speaking, many believe that having a brightly painted truck will result in more business, “More people will hire me if I have a beautifully painted truck,” said Khan, who makes his living transporting wood and glass. Historically, truck painting was developed in the 1940’s so that illiterate people could recognize who owned the trucks. Truck decoration largely mimicked motifs found on camel caravans and oxcarts for thousands of years. Then, during the 1950’s, when Haiji Hussain hit town, truck painting took a quantum leap. Renowned for the stylized murals and frescos he painted in palaces in his native Gujarat province in India, on the border with Pakistan, Hussain settled in Karachi. But palaces were in short supply in the working class town, and so Hussain started to decorate horse carriages and trucks. The appeal of Hussain’s decoration grew, and soon entire vehicles were covered with his designs. In the 1960’s, as Pakistan’s economy prospered, the transportation industry grew as well. Truck decoration began to reflect the growing wealth of drivers. This growing wealth and competition among rival truck drivers and owners led to the booming industry of truck painting.

Other regional idioms include calligraphy in Peshawar, geometric designs in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, woodwork in Baluchistan and camel-bone inlay work in Sindh.For such a vibrant industry, supercharged with color, the future, unfortunately, looks distinctively gray. Unlike the current generation of painters, body workers, and decorators who learned their trade from their fathers, uncles, and older brothers, members of the upcoming generation show very little interest in following their relatives’ footsteps. Nor do their parents necessarily want them to do so. Many parents believe that their children will have better futures if they continue in school and find more secure professions. Still, it is difficult to imagine this unique Pakistani craft dying out any time soon, particularly with painters like Master Shahid Sahab around to renew the tradition.

“Master Sahab paints crazy wacky things like army officers waterskiing, a Saracen warrior slaying Godzilla, mythic Greek heroes in togas,” chuckles Kazi. “Then, he’ll put plastic lovebirds on the dashboard and a ludicrous-sounding horn that blasts out a wolf whistle. I love this kind of madness.”

Somehow, you feel sure that the rest of Pakistan does, too, and that this moveable feast of imagery is nowhere near an end.

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Richard Covington Paris-based author Richard Covington ([email protected]) writes about arts, culture and the media in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for the International Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest and other publications.
Shahidul Alam Shahidul Alam is the founder of Drik Picture Library (www.drik.net), the Bangladesh Photo Institute and Pathshala (The South Asian Institute of Photography), as well as the biennial Chobi Mela Festival of Photography in Asia. He lives in Dhaka.