The once under-appreciated art of truck decoration has in the last few years evolved as a cultural symbol, which has not only been presented and appreciated in international cultural exhibitions but has also invaded the imagination of fashion designers.
To capture the significance of truck decorations in our culture, one must know of the history of the indigenous tradition. The art of adorning trucks and buses started in the 1920’s when many rival transportation companies hired craftsmen to decorate their buses in a bid to attract more passengers. Over the years, however, the art has evolved to include poetry, folk tales, caricatures of Lollywood actors and words of wisdom from the individuals employed in the truck industry.
This art — considered by many as garish due to its bright and floral colours — has invaded the fashion industry. With designers like Maheen Khan, Deepak Perwani and Babar Ali of Uth Oye! using various symbols of truck art in their designs, this art is not only becoming immensely popular, it’s also being endorsed in Pakistan. Brands like Khaadi have also incorporated truck art motifs in their kameezes, handbags and shoe collection, and local shopping plazas like Gulfway shopping centre in Karachi are also displaying shoes and bags decorated with brightly coloured designs inspired by truck art. “I think the concept of using truck art in pret wear involves the projection of working class culture to the upper crust. For instance, the less privileged use rickshaws and buses as a means of public transportation, and the elite wears motifs of public transport,” says Zuha Sheikh, a student who is fascinated by this venture.
So how did it all start in the world of fashion? Why and when did designers first start experimenting with this art? Khan says, “I’ve always loved our brilliantly decorated trucks.” The idea to introduce a clothing line based on such designs first struck her in 2002 after reading about a Pakistani truck exhibition at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. The festival, which aims to display and preserve traditions of various cultures, allowed foreigners to get a taste of Pakistani truck painting when painter Haider Ali and bodywork expert Jamiluddin shipped a truck from Karachi to Washington DC.
“I was extremely impressed by that. Amidst all the turmoil, this was a moment of pride for Pakistan. That was the turning point for me and I decided to work on designs representing our core culture,” adds Khan.
Her idea was presented in the form of Gulabo, a brand which credits itself with introducing truck art motifs into high street fashion. Insisting that the purpose was to reflect Pakistani culture in clothes, Khan states that the designs include rickshaws, trucks, tangas, imagery and poetry (typically found at the back of trucks and rickshaws), roses, birds, fish etc. “There is just so much. Every day, I see something new at the back of a bus or truck.”
These designs, with bright hues, seem befitting for female wear. However, Khan reiterates that the t-shirts are unisex and are popular with men as well. She also states that there is a huge demand for the t-shirts abroad, especially among the Pakistani expat community in the US and the UK.
It is therefore interesting to see how the incorporation of such motifs, in pret wear, can make people develop a liking for these local elements. “I’ve started appreciating the beauty of truck art after it made its presence felt in designer clothes. Before that, I didn’t pay attention to the intricate details of truck art,” claims 23-year-old Maria Khan, who is now a hard core fan of such designs.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 5th, 2011.