It’s true that appearances can be deceiving. Let’s consider rickshaws, a three-wheeled motorized taxi commonly used in Pakistan. A rickshaw may look like a creaking box on wheels, but this vehicle does more than just give a ride to fatigued pedestrians.
Ornately embellished rickshaws can be seen sauntering and belching along the congested roads of cities across Pakistan. Their vivid color palette, meticulous scripts, and abstract, flamboyant compositions should not be discarded as mere aesthetic publicity. Rickshaw art is an ingenious form of artistic and political expression: these drivers not only advertise their vehicles, they also share observations on some of the country’s most vexing political issues. Although once in a while you may come across posters of buxom actresses, alluring eyes, and intricate floral patterns, it’s safe to presume that most rickshaws racing by will have a serious message to share.
Rickshaw art was not always stirred by civilian misgivings. As far back as the 1950s, there was a widespread presence of heavily embellished rickshaws in the former province of East Pakistan, where oil painted rickshaws displayed striking images to attract customers, while simultaneously providing alternative advertising channels for movie theaters. The phenomenon of politically inclined rickshaw art emerged in the late 1970s during outbreaks of anti-governmental strife; this was around the time that East Pakistan separated from West Pakistan, forming what is now Bangladesh. Disgruntled right-wing parties have a long history of exploiting rickshaw art to promote anti-Indian and anti-American ideologies.
Consider Jammat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a notorious radical faction that has a reputation for paying rickshaw drivers five dollars each to convey their hostile slogans. Below, for instance, is an example of political poetry on a rickshaw that condemns foreign relations between Pakistan and the United States:
The message reads: So Wonders Pakistan: No work, no occupation, widespread corruption, a bad traffic situation. Slaves of America we have become, further shame can’t possibly come. For my fate, there is no plan. This, wonders Pakistan.
Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA), a nonprofit organization, is boldly challenging this contentious rhetoric through the Peace Rickshaw project, an initiative that seeks to transform rickshaw art into a manifestation of kindness and religious tolerance. Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, the head of PYA, claims that his initiative to utilize rickshaws as a marketing tool was ironically inspired by the radical hardliners his organization seeks to counteract. Zaidi’s nonprofit group has arranged workshops with more than 200 students to design peaceful slogans for the rickshaw campaign. PYA has proudly decorated over thirty rickshaws since February 2013 and plans to release hundreds more in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most conflict-ridden city.
The rickshaw above shows typical, peace-oriented messages advertised by PYA: The top of the rickshaw reads “love, tolerance, peace.” The middle reads “Pappu yaar [a common nickname] don’t make war.” The bottom reads “Spread love now, my dear, how many people have lost their lives?”
It should be noted that rickshaw drivers aren’t necessarily affiliated with a political or nonprofit group. Drivers usually hire people called “body makers” to decorate their vehicles with scripted or painted adornments. Below is an example of a rickshaw decorated with statements emphasizing a driver’s take on the country’s thoughtless governance:
The message reads: Gentlemen, please help those who are affected by load shedding [electricity shortages], for example by donating water, hand-held fans, undergarments (ladies and gents), towels, handkerchiefs, deodorant, itch guard cream, lanterns, sleeping pills, and child-care essentials. Of course… sleeping pills and false hopes are anxiously required too. (photo via)
The range of elaborate advertisements depicted on rickshaws truly varies. There are no statistics on the aggregate number of rickshaws emblazoned with political grievances artfully inscribed onto their exterior canvases, but the numbers are in the hundreds, if not thousands Further, rickshaw campaigns appear to be disconnected from government oversight, and are primarily employed ad hoc by radical groups, individual drivers, or civilian organizations.
What is for sure is that the heated political debates in Pakistan have found a new expressive outlet. One need only hitch a ride to engage with the politically charged, artistic discourse.
Follow Anam on Twitter @anamk10
Urbanism, Transportation, Pakistan, Bangladesh