The wrinkles on Haji Habibur Rahman’s face outnumber his years. His modest shop in Ganjmandi has no name, though the bright blue letters above the shutters read “painter”.
Patterns of birds, flowers and animals animate miniature trunks, kettles, lanterns and other household objects displayed in the cramped space under a single fluorescent bulb in the kind of tasteful garishness proverbial to Pakistani truck art.
“When I was young, a cousin visited our house and asked for a paper and pencil,” the 57-year-old painter shared with some nostalgia. Rehman, who studied till seventh grade at a slate-school struggled to provide his guest with the basic stationary, finally sharpened a small lead pencil with a knife. “[My cousin] drew me a cat,” he laughed, his eyes glinting with a certain fondness associated with milestone memories.
Truck art began solely as a personalisation of vehicles, to make dull voyages sufferable for drivers. The uniquely-Pakistan tradition became a way for drivers to measure economic superiority: the more ornate the decoration on the truck, the more successful the business. The recent popularisation and Warhol-esque evolution into a culturally-exclusive art form is attributed to the patronage of Pakistan’s elite.
At 12, Rahman was an apprentice to Mohammad Azam, who the painter said was one of the pioneers of truck art in Rawalpindi. “It was through [their] research that truck art took an elaborate form,” he explained, referring to his mentor Azam and master painters Mohammad Rafiq and Wadhwa Ali, who arrived in Rawalpindi in the late 60s. Using illustrative books and folk tales as reference, the trio introduced the various shapes and forms now considered inherent to truck art.
Haji’s father, who was a cleric at a local mosque, disapproved of his taste for drawing, deeming the illustration of animals and human forms “un-Islamic”. Despite the discouragement, a relentless Rahman continued, both out of a love for painting and the economic relief that it provided to his household.
Rahman no longer paints trucks. With the popularisation of the art, he has transferred his skill to canvases and objects. “Foreigners who noticed our trucks were the first to rush to Pindi to get souvenirs,” he explained.
Soon, the market for trinkets, furniture and even canvases adorned with vivid parrots, roses, idealised feminine eyes and other iconic forms grew enough so that Rahman and other painters like himself saw a business opportunity in producing the items themselves, rather than solely relying on orders.
Haji and his nephew, Ejazullah Mughal, have shifted to several shops over the last 25 years, though within the same neighbourhood. They pay Rs5,000 in rent for the modest space. Business isn’t great, but it gets them by.
Word of mouth and dedication to his craft brings in sporadic orders, sometimes even large ones that require hiring extra hands. “We have no complaints for as long as we can afford two meals a day,” says Rahman, as he squats by an incomplete canvas, opening up fluorescent cans of paint to start a second coat. “Success is a consistency of passion,” said the artist, explaining that in his trade there is no room for slack.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2012.