May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation,
When the winds of changes shift.
Joan Baez’s voice lilts and quavers this hymn of community, of compassion and of the preservation of the mind and the spirit and its art, as I reflect upon my day with Anjum Rana and Ustaad Haider Ali, truck artists from Lahore. Baez’s lyrics begin to transcend place and culture and resonate within the brightly painted boxes and pots that have fought for their visas and crossed borders to display their fantastically ornate, intricately crafted, imaginations.
Anjum Rana—recipient of the UNESCO Seal of Excellence in the Handicrafts—grew fascinated with the art on the trucks in her hometown of Lahore, and began chatting with their creators. These painters were not making an art of self-expression; rather their practice was their means of survival. Their problems varied from alcoholism to low income to disease (standing in the sun painting all day) and often a lack of materials with which to work. Anjum’s answer was to become their agent, of sorts. She hands them materials, and smaller mediums, like water hoses, boxes, jugs, chairs, sofas to decorate elaborately, then she tours with Ustaad to sell the objects they decorate. “It always brings a smile to people’s faces,” she grins.
Its true: humor is often evoked from a sense of absurdity, asymmetry, inversion. This art, de-contextualized from its day-to-day image on trucks, imposed on relatively miniature, everyday objects arouses a smile. It represents the comedic infiltration of the noisy, polluted streets into the safety and polish of the middle to upper-class house. Kitsch becomes high-brow.
The scenes depicted on the trucks are from the painter’s imagination, sometimes guided by the truck drivers’ requests. But imagination is, after all, created from our dreams and our experiences. Anjum explains that painters are often topical in their choice of subject matter. During the war in Afghanistan, several painted scenes of war—F 16 fighter jets and Ghauri missiles—against dreamlike scenes of a placid lake or a lush tree, of course. The omnipresence of nature in all its serenity is influenced by the artistic legacy of the ‘anatomical’ drawing in India and Pakistan: still life, nature, and human postures that trace back to Mughal patrons and their specific requests. The peacock, as seen in Ali’s box paintings, is an important and recurring image, a beautiful creature that bridges animal and bird, whose feathers ward off evil, and whose sight brings luck. Nearer local election times, the truck artists will paint political figures; when Pakistan won the World Cup, cricketer Imran Khan commanded space on every other truck; else the latest film star with rosy cheeks smiles at you in motion. Moreover, fantastical characters from the Q’uran, such as the prophet’s winged horse, Buraq, have become emblems of speed and safety.
May you always know the truth,
And see the lights surrounding you.
Truck art in India and Pakistan represents desires, dreams, hopes, idols, serenity, food, color, protection, and freedom. The color and decoration signify a kind of escapism, from a reality that can otherwise be sharp at the edges, with few comforting spaces within. It represents stature: he who has the best truck will get the most business—amongst clients or ladies or otherwise.
I watch Haider Ali fill in symmetrical, perfectly aligned pink stripes into the paisley pattern of a brightly-colored table fan. Like his father before him, he has been standing on the crowns of trucks under the sun, painting, conceptualizing. They add an aural dimension to their art by hanging bells, metal leaves, and even decorating their radios.
A carpenter chisels wooden panels for the doors. The polluted, crackling lanes of Lahore turn into an art gallery that pops with color and bling. From Indian trucks issue lemons and chilies with a phrase, ‘Bure nazar walla, tera moon kala’ (Cursed be the one with an evil eye). In Pakistan, a gentler phrase: ‘May your mothers’ prayers be a breeze from heaven,’ along with a pastel colored scarves that wipe off the evil eye.
Inside the trucks is a whole other decorative ecosystem in itself. Dashboards are bedecked with fake silk or plastic flowers, old fashioned talcum powder boxes with fair smiling housewives and outlandish wall-clocks, mirrors, even miniature chandeliers. This is not simply art; it is design. Thus are Ms. Rana and Haider Ali’s creations so vital today; they not only preserve this warm, color-filled tradition, they render it functional at a smaller scale, introducing that which is ‘tribal’ and pertaining to the ‘outside’ world into the cooler quarters of the wealthier, who are perhaps often in need for such wish-fulfillments themselves.
May your heart always be joyful,
And may your song always be sung.
-- Himali Singh Soin
(Images courtesy of Himali Singh Soin and the artists.)