Truck art isn’t just about a pretty picture. It tells you what the owner believes and that, by extension, tells you how people think in society. So one way to change attitudes is to show people a different picture.
Truck art painters have usually made fighters, landscapes, military dictators, sexy women, Tablighi messages. The art was mostly about the male gaze. Then someone came up with a suggestion: these trucks are seen all over Pakistan, in remote areas, why not give people something different to look at?
“In 2005, they said we should do it against bride exchanges to settle fights (watta satta and vani), to educate people,” says Hayat Khan, a contractor who was approached by a non-government organization with the idea. “I said alright. This is work for social good. There will be peace. Earlier on, art was a way to earn money. This earns us money and does a good deed.”
The new kind of art is replacing images glorifying violence and guns and women as objects, portraits of buxom film stars and military dictators with softer ones of girls reading books, fathers giving daughters their inheritance.
“Drivers used tell us we don’t want those pictures. We want our own choice of actor,” says artist Tahir Hayat. “They wanted those in which they hold weapons or swords. The marr-dhaar [violent] pictures. We got them to agree by saying they could spread awareness when their trucks travel throughout Pakistan, people will get a positive message which is Islamic and within the law.”
Of course, not all truck art is violent. Many of the Bedford Rockets or ‘Raket’ trucks are emblazoned with renditions of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) mosque in Medina and the Holy Ka’aba, which you will always find on the front out of respect. Other popular art includes talismanic symbols to ward off the evil eye: horns, tails, flags. If you see a fish, it is for good fortune. The eyes are for ‘nazar’.
In his 2011 book, On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan, Jamal J. Elias, Professor of Islamic Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in detail about the trucks beyond just the decoration. But it is still interesting to learn that for example, the Rawalpindi style ones have a taj, the Peshawari trucks have unpainted wooden doors. The Balochi trucks are the most expensive and have chrome fender modifications. Karachi produces the ‘disco’ truck with mirror work.
Over the years, these people’s faces could be seen across Pakistan because of these trucks: Madam Noor Jehan, Ayub Khan, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, Nawab Akbar Bugti, ZA Bhutto, Zia-ul Haq, Waheed Murad, Badar Muneer, Muhammad Ali, Shahid Afridi. The Sufi trucks feature saints Shah Bilawal Nurani and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The ‘Tablighi’ trucks sport the slogan: ‘From Raiwind to everywhere’.
“We used to make mountains or sceneries,” says Haji Ahmed, a driver. “But now Hayat ustad has said to change it. These are messages that will reach remote areas. We go to every city. People will look at them, read the message. Those who get it will get it, those who don’t, won’t.” But the hope is that if these trucks travel from Khyber to Karachi, with a slightly different message to convey, there will be people who will stop and think.