For the past 25 years, Omar Ali has made his living as a rickshaw driver in one of the busiest and most chaotic cities on earth. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, the 45-year-old pedals people around Dhaka on his cycle-rickshaw.
But the bad traffic has also encouraged him to sing. Every time he gets stuck in a jam, Mr Ali starts a song.
This week his musical talents were finally recognised when he won a TV talent contest that gripped viewers in Bangladesh. Singing a traditional folk tune, the father-of-four beat off the challenges of the other contestants – all of whom were also rickshaw drivers.
Now, armed with £1,000 prize money and a deal to release a CD of him singing, Mr Ali is looking to put the traffic-clogged streets of Dhaka behind him. “It is not about the money I have won, but my devotion to music,” he said.
Mr Ali, who usually earns less than £2 a day, said he learnt to sing by listening to the radio in his village in northern Bangladesh. “In the village I drove a buffalo cart and I would sing,” he explained. “Now in Dhaka, whenever I get caught in traffic, I sing. It makes my passengers happy and they sometimes give me 10 per cent extra. They get upset in the traffic but the singing helps make it bearable.”
The idea for the show, Magic Tin Chakar Taroka, or “Three Wheeler Stars” came from a journalist, Munni Saha, who had seen a talent show for rickshaw drivers held in a school playground on the outskirts of the city. When she won the backing of her television company, she put posters on the back of rickshaws to publicise auditions that attracted up to 3,000 men. This number was reduced to 20 after weekly episodes.
Saha said: “Maybe they are rickshaw drivers, but they are also singers, so I thought why don’t we help them.” Such has been the success of the show, both in Bangladesh and with expatriate audiences in the US and UK, that it is now likely to be repeated. Although Mr Ali now has his eye on a career in music, the runners-up used their prize money for more practical reasons. The 10 finalists all won around £300, enough to buy their own vehicles.
The working lives of Mr Ali and his fellow rickshaw drivers are hard and brutal, made worse by Dhaka’s awful traffic. The country’s interim government is working on a £3.2bn 20-year plan that includes underground railways, elevated motorways, flyovers, footbridges and new roads to try to ease the jams in the city of 11 million people.
It’s a life that Mr Ali, with his new-found fame, wants to escape. “Riding a rickshaw is hard on my body,” he said. “And it’s getting harder as I get older.”Reuse content