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.


Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Recruitment Genius: Processing Partner

    £15000 - £19200 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Processing Partner is require...

    Recruitment Genius: PPC Manager - SW London

    £34000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist travel agent ba...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower