HIGH KITSCH ON THE HIGHWAY
THE BROADER PICTURE
Sunday 01 October 1995
Brightly-painted wagons are a long-standing tradition in many Asian countries, including India and Indonesia, and in Paki-stan nearly all forms of transport rickshaws, buses, horse-drawn carriages, even bicycles are decorated. But Pakistan's heavy goods vehicles stand out for the sheer lavishness and intricacy of their ornamentation: this is truck-decoration as serious art.
Surprisingly, it is a relatively young art. Its founder is thought to have been the painter Ustad Allah Baksh, who in 1947 left his native Kutch for Dera Ghazi Khan, a dusty city in the centre of the newly formed state of Pakistan. Finding no demand there for his skills (he had been a painter of frescos for the nobility), he turned his attentions to the goods trucks that he kept encountering. There were already spray-painted trucks in the north of the country, but Ustad Allah Baksh's son Yusuf claims that proper truck-painting as it exists today, using bold enamel paints, owes its origins to his father. It is certainly true that, despite the intricately decorated trucks that are found in every large Pakistani city, Dera Ghazi Khan remains the undisputed centre of high truck art.
The subject matter of the paintings on the trucks, whatever region they come from, is often similar. Patriotism finds expression in pictures of national flags, monuments and political leaders, from General Ayub Khan to Benazir Bhutto. Fights between lions and snakes symbolise the triumph of good over evil. Pastoral scenes of lakes, waterfalls, snow-covered peaks and forests are meta-phors for the promised paradise of Islam. And, in recent years, portraits of voluptuous film stars have begun to appear, along with renderings of rifles and weapons of war, reflecting ways in which life has changed in modern Pakistan. Many of the trucks boast intricately cut-out metalwork, laboriously hammered by hand before being painted, and it is a matter of pride among drivers to see who can festoon his vehicle with the most mascots, badges, fringes, flashing lights, streamers and tassels. Every available inch of space is covered.
Street poetry, too, adorns the mudguards of many trucks. Crude but pungent couplets exhort all to tread the straight and narrow, refrain from casting the evil eye and reward loyalty with a tender glance. The couplets can be ribald, witty or sanctimonious ("A mother's prayer is like the breeze of heaven"), depending upon the driver's political, social and emotional affiliations.
Driver are willing to pay thousands of pounds on the decoration of a single truck, which takes place at one of the many workshops that are found in every city. Indeed, adorning a truck often costs a driver more than he might pay for a bride which may explain why truckers often refer to their newly-decorated trucks as their brides. Indeed, the average truck driver probably spends far more time in his truck than in the company of his wife which is the other side of the story.
For all its external colour, a truck driver's life is gruelling and monotonous. "One day I'm in Rawalpindi, the next day in Lahore," said Nazakat Ali, a driver from Hazara. "I do that every day of the year, except the two Eids [religious festivals]. I always travel with another driver; while I sleep, he drives. But neither of us ever sleeps for more than two hours at a stretch. I go carefully, but sometimes exhaustion makes you careless. When your time comes, it comes," he added, with a shrug. "A dark veil descends before your eyes and the angels drag you away."'!
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