Driving through the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, you see bold graffiti covering the walls, trash lining the streets, and people crouching on cement sidewalks. Throngs of locals sit outside street cafes, sipping chai in dhabas under the scorching sun. The commotion in the street fills your ears as frustrated drivers hurl insults into the dusty, humid air and incessantly honk their horns. Trucks stand out against the traffic—their bodies heavily embellished with paint and shiny strips. The riveting combination of colors swirls before your eyes, following you until you reach Keamari port.
Keamari is the largest port in the province of Sindh, where Karachi is located. It is famous for trade and transport of fresh seafood and crafts. Bedford trucks transport manufactured and non-perishable goods such as masalas and dry fruit throughout Pakistan. These trucks trace their roots back to the British automaker Vauxhall Motors, which exported them to Pakistan after World War I. The Maripur neighborhood surrounding Keamari Port has six “gates” for trucks: vast, open spaces where thousands of trucks are constructed, painted, and decorated. The scorching sun beats down on a gate that reads “3.” As you walk through it, a canvas of neon colors greets you. Trucks are lined up, in various stages of being painted, repaired, and glossed.
The “brides,” as the trucks are called by their owners, are adorned in exquisite jewelry. Metallic elements dipped in gold varnish hang by their sides like earrings. The windshield forms the truck’s “eyes,” above which rests a taj. Below the truck’s windshield is a garland of flowers. The exterior is a riot of colors.
For a truck’s owner, a “bride” is not just a romantic partner or wife; she is also his shelter and source of comfort. On one side of the “bride,” there is a ladder, which leads up to the cab, On the backside of one truck, there is an image of a man with his arms raised at his sides. He is clad in a loose frock, with a shawl draped over his shoulders. His jet-black hair matches his beard and flows past his shoulders. There is solace in his dreamy eyes. Tasbeehs, prayer beads, hang from both his arms—a reminder of religious faith. The man is a Sufi saint. Peach and brown shades blend to form his face. Beside him are lines of poetry in Persian or Urdu. Each italicized word is transcribed carefully.
According to Zehra Nawab, author of the book Seeking Paradise: The Image and Reality of Truck Art, the figure most commonly depicted on trucks is Syed Abdul Qadir Jilani, a revered 12th-century Sufi, who is featured in several legends. Sufi traditions are embedded deeply in the minds of Pakistan’s lower class.
Witty sentences and beautiful Arabic poetry form the majority of calligraphy. Also common are painted jasmines, the national flower of Pakistan, that blossom in all their glory. Other trucks display idyllic depictions of landscapes in northern Pakistan, where the mountains sleep like giants who have lost their way.
On my visit to Gate 6, the welder Ejaz explained to me why the trucks are painted. Not only do the decorations provide occupations for illiterate people with a family history of artisanry, he said, but they also increase the truck’s resale value.
“The painted surfaces take time to wear away,” he said.
A crowd of men gathered around, eager to share their knowledge about their work.
These men dress their trucks in shiny geometric patterns, which are made out of strips of an indigenous material known as “‘chamak patti” in Urdu. Their trucks are a cacophony of glimmering mirrors and neon colors.
In one of the many little shops situated around the gate, shopkeepers Bilal and Qamar explained the art of carving “chamak patti.” Both have been in the trade for twenty years. For the first ten, they worked in their father’s and uncle’s shop, learning how to glue pieces of the bright material together to form unique designs. They also polished and sculpted the metal earrings that hang off the trucks. For the past ten years, they have operated out of their own shop, supplying materials that drivers can glue, paste, and display on their trucks.
“We use pictures taken from people’s phones as references,” said Bilal, excited to explain his work.
In recent years, the pair has begun to digitally print pictures on different materials and paste them onto pieces of metal to form decorations.
A painter’s muscular arm moves across the truck, an empty canvas. The green of a verdant garden, the brown of fresh mud, the burgundy of a bird’s neck—suddenly the entire truck is covered with colors, memories, and ideas. Who is the man behind the brush?
Imran said in an interview that he, like most other painters, has never known any other occupation. His father and grandfather were truck artists, and as a young child, he was an apprentice to a teacher of the craft, known as the ustaad. With thick swirls and brushes of white paint, he transcribes a poetic Urdu verse that reads, “mother’s prayer, heaven’s air,” onto the truck.
“You know the way you go to school?” he said. “This is school for us.”
When he began his apprenticeship as a teenager, Imran was illiterate. After fifteen years of learning calligraphy-based painting, he is now proficient in both reading and writing. His arm moved skillfully in quick swishes over the metal surface as he spoke. He said that he is used to working quickly, since an entire truck must be painted from top to bottom in two days. The faster he paints, he said, the faster he is paid—about ten thousand rupees (90 U.S. dollars) per truck.
Despite his skillful craft, Imran does not dwell on the beauty of his work. His own nonchalant attitude reflects an unfortunate reality: Until recently, truck art was not widely recognized.
“While there existed a time when nobody knew about truck art, the art form has now come to be representative of Pakistan in both the local and international community,” Nawab told me.
She said that her passion for truck art stems from her interest in how Pakistani art has spread to merchandise, like shoes and furniture. In Nawab’s view, truck art, which is cheaply attainable and created by informally skilled workers, overshadows the art of famous Muslim artisans such as Allax Bux and Sadequain.
In her article, Nawab explores the history of truck art. Writing about the truck art phenomenon proved difficult because it has not evolved in a linear manner, nor has it historically been well-documented. During the 16th and 17th century, Mughal princes acted as strong patrons of the arts and encouraged artisans to produce intricate work for their kingdoms. When the Mughal Empire was replaced by British rule, princely states remained intact. Artisans continued their crafts in Hyderabad and Deccan, where former kings continued to have their homes colored with pictures of blooming flowers and soaring birds.
Durriya Kazi, a sculptor and researcher of truck art, told Nawab that after the 1947 partition, families migrated to Pakistan. One was the family of Haji Hussain Saab, a pioneer of truck art. The migration of skilled artisans into Pakistan coincided with a “boom in the transportation industry,” she said. With the princely states now gone, artisans needed employment. They chose to decorate the identical, bland Bedford trucks being imported with increasing frequency into Pakistan.
Nawab noted that for the truck owners, art is like a “marketing technique.” In order to sell their vehicle, the owners must make their trucks look more glamorous than their competitors’. People assume that if so much effort is put into maintaining a truck, it must be worth something.
In the past, truck art has also been a propaganda tool. In 1965, when India and Pakistan were at war over the disputed territory of Kashmir, trucks bore nationalistic and militaristic slogans. For example, one read, “‘Pak fauj Zindabad!” (Long live the Pakistani army!)
Over time, however, trucks have come to represent the local preferences of the truck drivers. A famous portrait of a local Sindhi singer, Jalal Chandio, is a common feature on many trucks. Nawab noted that other references to popular culture often appear on buses.
Zafarullah Zehri, a senator from Balochistan—one of Pakistan’s four provinces—is painted on the back of one truck. His beard is twirled at the edges, and his eyes are painted in a warm hazel. Nawab said that the paintings, which are specific to different provinces, function as a sort of passport for the truck drivers. Balochistan, for example, is a province that has a history of political tensions with the national government of Pakistan and, more specifically, with the Pakistani army. If a driver has the painting of a Balochistan-supporting politician on his truck, Nawab said, he is less likely to be stalled at security checks in Balochistan.
On her tour through Punjab, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh, Nawab found that artisans in different provinces had unique skill sets. In Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, artisans excelled in mirror work. In Rawalpindi, they crafted decorations with chamak patti. Karachi represented the confluence of all these different specialties. Though Pakistan has serious regional divisions, “borders are incredibly porous in the truck world,” Nawab said.
Karachi is a city of bearded faces, women in flowing abaya, teenage girls wearing t-shirts, old couples in traditional shalwar kameez, all turning to see the kaleidoscope of colors that drives past them in the form of a painted truck. In the painting of a winking eye, you see the dreams of beautiful landscapes imagined by romantics. In the tangled chains of the truck, you see the anxiety of businessmen. In the slogans, you see the ambitions of the public. And in the paintings of Lollywood actresses, you see the desire for ecstasy and entertainment. In the Sufi folklore, you see the need for protection and the fear of death. In the birds, you see the desire for peace.
Looking at the truck art, you are cast full force into the dizzying vibrancy of Karachi.