Some of the most striking examples of Pakistan’s folk art are found not in the galleries of its major cities but on the roads that crisscross the country.
For here run the trucks and buses that represent the pride of their owners not because of their horsepower but because of the quantity and quality of their brilliant decorations.
It’s an extremely popular form of art in South Asian and a visitor can hardly go more than a block without encountering one of these elaborately festooned vehicles.
Adorned with beautifully painted panels and calligraphy, the trucks are an amazing sight. The owners even erect tall additions above the cab to provide extra space for yet more decorations.
The immensely colorful paintings that cover the trucks and buses on every inch of exterior space are often enhanced by other ornaments hung from bumpers or sprouting from the sides and tops.
Some sport plumes and flowers while others jangle with metal fringe and tassels hanging from front and back bumpers.
The most exotic also have strings of light illuminating both the interior and exterior – creating quite a road time show after dark.
Interiors are often decorated as complexly as the exteriors. The higher-end trucks even feature elaborately embroidered seats in floral designs.
‘They’re the people’s art,” says Syed Jamal Shah, director general of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts. “It really proves that everyone considers art a necessity of life.”
A rural folk tradition
The origin of truck art is uncertain, but most think it began in the rural areas of India and Pakistan.
By the time Pakistan was born as a country in 1947, this form of folk art had become fully established and truck panels were adorned with floral designs, saints’ portraits and religious themes, elaborate pictures of animals and birds, and even entire landscapes.
Shah says the art originally reflected the folk tales, traditions, culture and religions of the rural people who owned the trucks.
“If you go to these people’s houses you’ll see the walls entirely decorated and the embroidery is very rich,” he says.
In periods of political turmoil in Pakistan, truck art would also contain political images, such as portraits of the country’s rulers. It was about this same time that calligraphy in striking colors also began to adorn the trucks.
In the 1970s, the country’s truck art seems to have been expanded to buses, especially in the busy city of Karachi.
From the 1990s into the 2000s, truck art exhibitions began to be organized throughout the world and the genre became synonymous with Pakistan.
Art becomes professional
While the first truck art was probably the product of the vehicles’ owners, modern truck art is often professionally rendered and quite expensive.
Abid Hussain, 50, is a professional truck art painter who works out of Islamabad. He’s been decorating vehicles for over three decades.
On the day he was interviewed, Hussain was painting his truck-art designs on wooden cabinets commissioned by truck art lovers. Each cabinet, which would cost its new owner about $400, was intricately painted both outside and on the interior.
Hussain says it takes a crew about a month to paint an entire truck, a job that will run the truck’s owner nearly $500,000.
“There’s no specific reason people want their trucks painted but they just want people to see them,” Hussain says through an interpreter. “The more decorated they are, the more pride they feel.”
As an example, he pointed to a Jeep parked nearby that had been gorgeously painted with folk designs. The vehicle’s seats were embroidered in the same bold, bright colors.
The Jeep was used for a Pakistani travel show that was televised across the country. The spectacular vehicle cost the producers $1.5 million to create.
Trucks inspire verse
Truck art here is so well loved, it’s even inspired its own brand of truck art poetry, according to a story on the trucks from Public Radio International.
Some of those couplets are written, often in Urdu, on the decorated vehicles themselves.
Some tell of love lost. Others give practical advice.
My personal favorite underscores the pride that these truckers feel in their marvelous steeds and their brilliantly floral designs.
“The truck gets going, kicking up dust.
Enemies burn in envy, as the flowers play.”
Thanks to Dorene M. Lorenz for final photo.