While strolling in a Pakistani Mela, Khyber to Mehran, in Mississauga I was attracted to a giant canvas partly filled with vibrant colors. As we got closer, we saw a man with was effortlessly making strokes with a brush creating flawless images. Without the initial sketch, even the symmetry was perfect.
“That’s truck art.” Screamed my daughter. I stood watching him in awe…not just the perfection, but the speed and the choice of colors. He turned back and in response to our questioning smile, introduced himself as ‘truck artist Haider Ali’ from Karachi. ( The stress was on the first two words).
Haider Ali is visiting Canada on the special sponsorship of the Pakistani Consulate and represented Pakistani Truck Art in the South Asian Heritage Celebrations called RUNG, at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and Carrasauga Festival in Mississauga in May. Last week he also painted a panel at the Canadian Parliament at Ottawa.
I had a million questions to ask about the Truck Art, so I followed him at the exhibition Moving Art arranged by a friend Asma Mahmood at her Promenade Gallery
First of all I wanted to know the history of the origin of truck art:
“It all developed very gradually. In 1950s after partition, the Karachi Port ( Keamari Port) became the main source of trade. It was mainly the camel carts and the donkey carts that carried the goods. The camel carts being bigger, brought goods from the port upto wide roads and then transferred the good were carried on smaller donkey carts, to navigate through the narrow lanes leading to the City Station from where trains carried them to the rest of Pakistan. The painters painted camel, donkey and horse carts , while their animals were adorned with intricate accessories and ornaments made out of beads and wool.
In 1960s, Bedford trucks started to arrive from Luton, England. So the trucks gradually replaced the camel carts. Three painters which included his father, started to comply to the demands by the truck drivers’ demands to paint the names of their cities, and sometimes for their kids mention on the truck.
- Mera Sona sheher Chakwal
- Aao sanam Kashmir chalein
- Sonu tey Billo di gaddi.
Like the animal cart owners, they considered their trucks as their companions. Perhaps ( speculates Haider Ali), the more imaginative ones wanted their trucks also to be more ornately adorned like these animals. Hence the idea of more detailed motifs developed. The idea got better, and better. The painters started to add more colors, and designs like flowers, birds, scenes, and human figures on the truck. This inspired a competitive spirit, not just between the truck owners but also between the painters, who boasted of their newer and more creative designs. Thus the art kept evolving, and it still is.”
“In the 60s and 70s the Garden area, which is the hub of truck art in Karachi, used to look like an artists street from Italy or Spain”. says Haider Ali. Many foreigners used to come and appreciate the art. Many wrote articles on it, as they went back.
Haider ali began learning from his father at the age of 7. After school he used to play around the place where his father painted, and sometime out of curiosity for colors, his father let him put dots or lines on the truck. He learnt mixing of colors, contrasts, and how to make strokes. Seeing his interest and flair in strokes, his father sent him to a friend who used to paint posters for films.
At the age of 22 he decorated a truck for the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. one of the most detailed piece he has painted, The truck still stands there at the institute.
He has exhibited his art on a truck & vans in London and Luton too:
A bus and a friend ship car in Turkey. The doors of the car below show King Faisal Mosque(Pakistan) on the left and Blue Dome mosque(Turkey) on the right.
There are so many colors and details to be added. Isn’t it very complicated?
“Each truck is worked by 6-7 group of artists specializing in different areas.When it is our turn to paint, start from a white painted background, the add details over details. Once painted, a sticker paper is added in lines to reflect the light, called the chamak patti. Then the electrician adds the electric fitting like colorful bulbs , metal workers add the colored chains, and metallic frames to make it more intricate. Even the interiors are explicitly detailed, including the faux leather seats, which match the motif designs.”
The play of color begins:
The explicitly detailed interiors:
Asking him about the details of the kind of motifs the truck drivers demand, he says.
The image that stands most popular since time immemorial is Ataullah EsaKhel. They love his songs, and he has been painted thousands time over.
Ayub Khan was also one of the popular figure among the drivers from KPK na they often comes with: Teri yaad aayi tere jaane ke baad.”
Are there any demands for politicians? Yes few have aslked for Baloch sardars, but mostly it is Ayub Khan. Some have now started to paint
Imran Khan, but I guess now this demand will increase. He has painted the famous Shaheed Benazir Bhutto’s photo for a few:
“Yes Mustafa Qureshi was very much in demand some time ago. Amongst the Bollywood, Mamta Kulkarni with a unique picture of a chain in her mouth( I have asked Haider to look for the picture) is much in demand. He has also made a few of Rani Mukherjee, and one of Aishwarya Rai”.
Any male stars? Shahrukh or Amitabh Bachan?
And he smiles, “No. Not yet.”
Among the monuments, Minar-e-Pakistan, Faisal Mosque and Khyber Gate are the most popular. Taj Mahal is also demanded by many.( That was a surprise, indeed.)
“One driver demanded Bruce Lee on his truck.” smiles Haider Ali.
Many want birds, or even sher ( for which he paints a tiger).
Haider Ali loves drawing all kinds of birds and their details including falcon, peacocks, partridges, eagles etc.
Are there any unusual themes that you worked for?
“The demand for themes and designs vary with changing times.
For example, in the times of war, in 60s and 70s, there were patriotic slogans with missiles and jet planes.”
While in the last elections, he painted a truck on demand for Pak Election 2013, by SAMAA TV channel.
Talking of the slogans, he said calligraphy on trucks is another field and many artists do it as a separate. He loves to do the calligraphy too.
What are your favorite slogans:
Anything that a truck driver demands. Almost all trucks adorn a Masha Allah on the head. If they leave on us, we choose for them.
- Dekho fasla rakho, warna pya ho jaaega.( Keep distance, otherwise we’ll fall in love)
- Hum chalein, dushman jalein( As we roll, our rivals envy)
- Na ghabra ai zaalim paas aney sey, Khuda bhi rooth jata hai kisi ka dil dukhane sey.
(Don’t be afrais of coming close, even God is displease by those who hurt others.).
Most who get their trick repainted the favorite is:
- “Waqt ne pher sey dulhan bana diya.” (Time has turned us into a bride again).
Haider Ali’s favorite shair being:
- Tum ney aisa rabta rakha, na paas aye na door rakha. ( You kept such a relationship, neither came close, nor went too far apart).
- Zid na ker, assi aap barey ziddi aan. ( Don’t be stubborn, I am the same too).
Among the famous in Pakistan Tapu Javeri the photographer, had commissioned him to make a panel for his house. Ever since they became friends. Haider Ali pays tribute to his friend by at times changing the famous slogan to:
Can truck art be used to promote Peace for India Pakistan Peace friendship?
Haider says he went to Museum of Peace in India just 1.5 km from Atari and painted an India Pakistan friendship van. He again has been called to Calcutta this September for a yet undisclosed Project.
My daughter was curious: “Does NCA or Indus Valley have Truck Art’ in their course? Have yuo ever been to those places?”
He smiles: They don’t consider truck art as an art. However, thanks to Sabeen Mahmood, I have my works on display all the time at T2F. And Lok Virsa. In Pakistan we are a moving exhibition, 24X7, spreading the message of peace and harmony through colors and slogans. You will not find any hateful message on any truck or bus. Like our designs, our location of exhibit have no bounds.( “Hamre art ko koi qaid nahin hai.” ( Our art knows no bounds neither of ideas, nor of locations).
People copy your ideas?
“Yes, though our art is not considered an art, many designers have copied them on dresses, furniture, crockery etc. They can copy our designs, but can’t copy our ideas and skill. I don’t feel offended. Infinite is the limit of ideas for a ‘truck artist’. No two motifs are identical, no two trucks are same. And they are what they call in art world, ‘custom designed.’. .”
If not painting on truck, Haider Ali loves to make painting depicting stories( owing to his interest and training in painting the film posters when young.
I particularly liked the one of Omar Khayyam:
And the Sohni Mahiwal”
He has a two year old son, who he aspires to be a ‘truck artist’ too, but also wants him to first complete his education, which Haider Ali missed out on. If educated person will come in the truck art, we will get more recognition.
My daughter pointed out how in film BOL the place where trucks are painted was shown as the place where the transgender boy was raped. Haider Ali retorted, “There are good and bad everywhere.” Though there is no dearth of respect and recognition we get world over, wish our Pakistani films and dramas showed the positive side of lives too.
Some more of Haider Ali’s works:
He invited me to his work shop in Karachi to learn the swift and steady brush strokes that fascinates me so much. But before I seriously go and master them, I practiced them out on the ‘truck art’ inspired silk scarves the same evening.
(One in Hindi & the other in Urdu)