Rickshaw Art of Bangladesh

– Jupiter Pradhan [2009/10]

Though rickshaw was introduced in Bangladesh in 1919, it was not until the 1950’s that different colorful art works were added to it. In the beginning people thought this rickshaw cannot get popularity and will not last long as a public vehicle as it seems inhuman to many people. But surprisingly it got popularity day by day. Soon it becomes popular and common transport vehicle in Bangladesh, both in urban and rural area.

The early rickshaws, of 30’s, were rather different to today’s models. Also art did not begin with the rickshaw itself. Later, in 1950’s, it was added to its body. Early rickshaws were invariably painted in simple dark blue and red, of any such combination of primary colors. The seats were made of black leather, wider and more comfortable; hoods were made of khaki waterproof canvas, and the iron frame of pipe painted in green or black.

Now a day, when rickshaw moves form one place to another, it moves not only with the passenger and load, but it moves with a museum full of art. Every inch of rickshaw is well covered with paintings, tassels, tinsel and colorful plastics and collage works on hood. Rickshaw’s collapsible hoods (usually made of bamboo, rexin and plastics), footboard, seats, back side, frame and chassis, all are profusely painted and covered with beautiful art works.

To give the answer of “Why did rickshaw art emerge at a particular time?” in different views and angle, Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam wrote in his one article; “rickshaws, as soon as they were introduced, became quite popular with the public, so that owners had a reasonably good turnover. This allowed them the luxury to invest a few extra rupees in decorating their rickshaws, which after all, had to compete at the point of time with colorful tom-toms (horse-drawn carriages). In other words, rickshaws had to look attractive and distinctive enough to woo passengers away from tom-toms.  Secondly, since several movie houses of Dhaka had been doing brisk business by the late fifties, movie banners were in great demand. The artists who painted these banners usually also painted rickshaws, often without incurring any new expenses.” He also added, “Rickshaw art, in that sense, found an early friend in Dhaka’s movie theaters. As Dhaka sprawled as the capital of the province of East Pakistan, people from the villages were drawn to it for employment. Many of them ended up as rickshaw pullers, having failed to secure any better job.  These migrants from villages must have found pulling a rickshaw painted with rural scenes emotionally satisfying and surely instantly identified themselves with the scenes. Moreover, many rickshaw garage owners must also have been drawn to the rural landscapes they had stowed away in their memories to return imaginatively to a past as often as they could.”

From the very begging artists painted flower and village scenes. Hindu painters represented goddesses such as Kali, Durga, and story of Ramayana & Mahabharata etc. Muslim painters introduced Borak (a flying horse), mosques and dargahs (shrines of saints).  Also Muslim women who needed parda (privacy) could also cover rickshaw with sari (parda) that we yet can see.

The time period between 60’s and 70’s is known as golden period of the rickshaw art of Bangladesh. This was the period when rickshaw art began to diversify and accommodate itself even more too popular test. During this period movie scenes and actors were added to rickshaw art as these were too popular subject for the people. This art was inspired by the contemporary Indian and Pakistani movies and actors such as Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Raj Kapur, Madhu Mala, Boijanti Bala, Gita Bali, Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Muhammad Ali and Zeba. They were also interested about Bangladeshi actors such as Razzak and Fateh Lohani. Still in Rajshahi district of Bangladesh we can see lots of influence of contemporary indian movie and Indian actors in rickshaw art such as Rani Mmukherjee, Ashowrya Roy, Salman Khan, Saharukh Khan, Sanjaya Dutt etc. The representation of romantic scene is very dramatic in rickshaw painting. For example, the hero is playing mandolin and the girl friend is standing wearing very thin sari (probably muslin sari). There are also some paintings where the man’s driving scooter while the girl friend is sitting backside of the scooter, roaming around the city.

Along with rural landscape, cityscapes got place in back plates of rickshaw and soon these becomes more and more fantastic – even bizarre – although still retaining the early desire for order. During 60’s to mid 70’s romantic fantasy were used a lot as the subject matter of a painting.

This is the time when some social and political contents were added to rickshaw painting. During this decade Bangladeshi had started the language movement as they were ever proud of their linguistic and cultural identity. It was this, as much as the political and economic disparities, which lead to the struggle for freedom from West Pakistan, and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Some Liberation war scenes appeared in rickshaw paintings for short time during that year, such as torture, killing, enemies, and freedom fighters, scenes of tanks being destroyed and fighter planes sweeping across the sky. The Pakistani army’s atrocities against women were very common subject of that period. One image in particular of a fierce-looking Pakistani soldier pulling a woman’s sari was very popular.

There was also another very famous political rickshaw painting in which Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rahman are portrayed while the war scene was presented in the back ground. After mid 70’s another work “Ziaur Rahaman digging cannel” were also made. In the same period several painters made copies of Zainul Abedin’s famous painting “Sangram”.

According to rickshaw painter Syed Ahmed Hossain, “During that time, some artists showed only the crime. Government became aware around 1972, that in country foreigners were taking a huge interest in atrocity image by purchasing panels in the market, so the government had requested the artists and makers to stop these scenes.”  Rear mirrors were also banned; it was alleged that pullers were using them to stare at female passengers. These mirrors have never reappeared in rickshaw. He still remembers that around 1977 there was unwritten censorship enforced by the government on human figure in rickshaw paintings. Artist Rahman mentioned in his lecture, “To renew the number plates of rickshaws the owners have to take their rickshaw to the municipal corporation in those days. Human figures were overlapped by black paint by the authorities. To handle this situation, the owners sometime covered the painting with grease, so that the black paint disappears quickly. Therefore the artists had to draw floral patterns, birds and landscapes instead. But eventually this situation was recovered and the painters got their freedom back.”

According to Ahmed, this is the time when the rickshaw artists started to paint scenes of animal with human behaviors. Ahmed is the one of them who established himself in this kind of art subjects.  His series of art works “animal city” is very famous in Bangladesh as well as other countries.

In that time these kinds of scenes were followed by scenes of futuristic cities, foreign cities, London Bridge, wars and warships, new means of transport (car, trains, planes etc.). Also the historical architectures and famous landscapes got important place in rickshaw paintings. Tajmahal on lotus flower, Karjon hall, Ashan Manjil, High Court, Bahadur Shah Park, Baitul Mokarram Masque are most shown architecture.

The other art works of rickshaw was also changed. In front of the hood the rickshaw makers started adding a crown like cut out of metal sheet. On the top of that, Tajmahal, flower, Allahu in Arabic calligraphy, popular image of Borak etc were painted. They had also used plastic dolls as an art piece on the rickshaw. In the front handles they used colorful designs hanging from the steering. Inside the hood, colorful thin net cloth was also used. Metal flower vases were added on mudguard of the back and front wheels. The handle was wrapped with different colored ribbons and kept a bouquet of plastic flowers between the handlebars. Rickshaw rider used to have very artistic and comfortable seat. The rickshaw seat had wooden frame, contains coconut-husk fiber padding and perhaps some springs, and is upholstered with plastic material painted with characteristic designs. The seat-back shown images similar to those of the backboard; the seat itself was always painted with a lotus design. The edge strip of the seat, behind the rider’s legs, was emblazoned with the rickshaw maker’s name framed by birds or flowers. Makers covered footboard with decorated shiny metal sheet often made of flattened shiny side of biscuit tins. They also added shiny board-pin (board pin) designs, often in the shape of a heart pierced by an arrow, or of geometric patterns inlaid with colored plastic. Also they used artistic plastic bicycle seat for driver.  Even the ribs of the hood were covered with a sheet of fitted plastic applied with cut outs of colored, golden or silver plastics in traditional Dhaka design medallions, some of which contain at the center a red or blue rose, a peacock or a burning candle. Golden butterflies or stars and crescents may surround each medallion. One rickshaw hood maker, Mohammad Selim of Dhaka, told that the pattern cutting for rickshaw art is influenced by jhalot cutting tradition of Bangladesh. According to him, jhalot design was started from 40’s where as collage art on hood was started from 60’s only. He also told that in the beginning they used wood carving tools for design cutting. So there was no finishing in plastic design used in rickshaw hood during 60’s-70’s. Now a day, they are using different kind of scissors, specially made for design cutting. The hood, which is made out of bamboo used to have painted flowers, plants, birds, different patterns etc. With enamel colors and brush they used to paint directly on the surface. Usually the rickshaw painters are very expert and fast in using brush; they used to use different techniques to draw local motifs. The motifs of borders have taken from “pata chittro”, other designs are taken from “sakher hadi” or Goddess Durga’s decoration. Even they also copied patterns from truck painting of Pakistan and sometime they are inspired from the “Alpana”, the floor painting.

The aluminum sheets of the back of the rickshaw have multiple decorations of various kinds. The circular or heart shapes are outlined with ornamental surrounded board-pins. The painted rose or peacocks, or a painted emblem with the rickshaw owner’s choice of imagery always placed there.

By the early 1980’s, the English word ‘disco’ began appearing in Bengali language, prompted by the circulation of videotapes featuring American television dance programs. By this time, some rickshaw makers had already begun installing transistor radios just above the footboard; rickshaw so equipped became known as ‘disco rickshaws’.

In the beginning of 80’s, the artists started to use magenta and green enamel to make the painting very bright. During mid 80’s while florescent color was available, it became very popular. Artists of that time used to sell these colorful works in the rickshaw or cycle parts shop in town. In the same time offset printed plates was being used in the back side of the rickshaw to develop social awareness only. Afterwards, following this idea and copying the composition of rickshaw painting, pictures of movie stars appeared in that surface using offset print that was much shown in mid 90’s. But these offset print also have some limitations, it is sensitive to light. When it contacts with direct sun light, it fades away very quickly. As result, the picture looses its beauty. Magenta and yellow colors disappear and the picture becomes bluish. We could hardly see them now, but recently as the alternative of offset print they have started using silk screen printed plate.

Kirkpatrick and Bubriski mentioned in their article of 1994 that most rickshaws are colorfully decorated, though many show signs of age and deterioration. The newest, shiniest models are, as one Bengali put it, “as gorgeous as a bride going forth for the first time to her in-law.”

Lasnier pointed out that after the mass production of back-plates, limited numbers of themes are presented such as village scenery, futuristic cities, animals and birds, monuments of Bangladesh, scenes from fairy tales, and religious symbols like mosques and women and child praying. Taj Mahal is also a favorite monument.

Though rickshaw art of Bangladesh has been facing lots of problems from the beginning, 1950’s, it becomes very famous in world. It helps to spread the information of Bangladeshi art and culture, world wide. It might be the reason of the attention of contemporary Bangladeshi artists and people towards rickshaw art after 90’s.

Sometime this rickshaw art is criticized as Jihadi art because of the portrait of Saddam Husain, Bin Laden and some Muslim religious issues that has presented in rickshaw painting. But it is not justice to make a propaganda using the word “Jihadi art” for rickshaw art. These issues are not presented as political propaganda activity. Like those Muslim issue many more contemporary issue were presented in rickshaw paintings in past and present for example freedom fighters of Bangladesh (which is secular in mode). The painters also represented twin-tower, London Bridge, Eiffel tower and many more object in there painting which are the pride of the west not any subject matter of Islam. Somewhere it is also commented as male desire. Definitely the questions like why only female and boy is shown praying to the Allah?, should be answered.

Though lots of unanswered question are there, this art has been always representing the pure independent feelings of the common people of Bangladesh, as well as Bangladeshi culture. In the art we can also find the conscious, subconscious and unconscious stage of mind of artists. In painting, artists are expressing their desire and dream of life, as like in primitive art and folk art.

It is not right to describe Rickshaw Art in any comparison with western art knowledge. It is developed on the land of Bengal and with its own manner, culture, civilization and society. We can find artists’ freedom in each line drawn in the Rickshaw Painting, which presents a discipline in a different rhythm. Artist himself feel free all the time, it seems like it is not affected by any theory of any art world a bit. This art is developed without any development of academic education, study or schooling like modernist mainstream manner; this is the characteristics of this art.

It is not fair to compare this rickshaw art with the western pop art as they are influenced by the social issues happened in a society.

In this Rickshaw Art, artists are very free to choose their own subject. We can find the influence of social, cultural, economic and political components as well as the famous folk and traditional art of subcontinent, which should be taken as natural phenomenon.

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