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Dhaka's rickshaw art fades in motor age

A war of independence didn't stop him nor did two bouts of sectarian bloodshed and an Islamist military government, which banned his work. Bangladesh's famous rickshaw artist R.K. Das kept on painting.

But the wily 75-year-old, whose masterful depictions of Bollywood film stars in bright colours adorn tens of thousands of rickshaws in his native Dhaka, has finally been defeated: by the car.

"The golden age of rickshaw painting has passed," Das told AFP at his small workshop in the historic old quarter of the Bangladeshi capital.

"When Dhaka was a small city, everyone used a rickshaw - even a groom would use a rickshaw to ride to his bride's house. Then, I would work day and night painting rickshaws; now, no one cares," he said with a sigh.

Rickshaws were first introduced in Bangladesh in the 1930s from Japan, where the three-wheeled vehicles were known as nintaku.

The idea of decorating the leg-powered contraptions took off in Bangladesh the 1950s with the tradition following the simple yet colourful style then used by painters producing movie billboards.

"There are rickshaws in other parts of South Asia but nowhere are the vehicles so artistically decorated as in Dhaka - just as unique as painted trucks are to Pakistan," said Abdus Sattar, an oriental art professor at Dhaka University.

"Decorating rickshaws was a way for drivers to compete for business - they wanted to make their vehicle as beautiful as possible to attract as many clients as they could," said Sattar.

"So we saw the birth of a unique folk art form. It's a uniquely Bangladeshi craft. It's a people's art and its motifs are simple: cinemas, animals, landscapes or monuments," he said.

Every inch of a rickshaw, from hood to spokes, is typically decorated but each vehicle also has a large tin plate set on the lower-back which features the most elaborate paintings.

When Das first started painting rickshaw plates in 1953, rickshaw drivers would queue around the block to get his paintings of buildings, idyllic Bangladeshi landscapes or movie stars on their tin plate.

But over the past three decades, Dhaka has transformed from a city of less than 100,000 people to a sprawling metropolis of 13 million people.

As Dhaka has grown, rickshaws have fallen from grace.

Some half a million of the slow-moving tricycles still ply Dhaka's streets, but they are now seen as a major cause of the city's crippling congestion, which forces commuters to spend an average of eight hours a day in jams.

The government has repeatedly attempted to reduce the number of rickshaws in Dhaka, banning the unwieldy vehicles from using major intersections and refusing to issue new rickshaw licenses for the last five years.

Some experts, such as Mohammad Rahmatullah, a former transport director at the United Nations, have even called for a total ban on rickshaws.

"Dhaka can never be a modern city if rickshaws are not eliminated from main
roads. The sooner Bangladesh realises this, the better," he told AFP.

Public opposition has pressured the government into slowing its drive to rid the city of rickshaws and forced the World Bank to abandon a proposed programme to phase out the vehicles.

Even so, the old airport in Dhaka's Tejgaon district offers a hint of the future: thousands of rickshaws confiscated during periodic police crackdowns on unlicensed vehicles have been dumped on the old runway, left to rot in the sun.

As the rickshaw heads towards extinction, it takes with it one of Bangladesh's most distinctive art forms, said Sattar, the art professor.

"You always felt good if you were on a neatly decorated rickshaw. These days people just want to move fast," Sattar said.