Brides of Paradise*
Though late by four decades, the subcontinent at the turn of the century has had it real good for Pop Art. It has been a time when recognition has finally come knocking down doors and glass ceilings that separated the street from the high-brow. Anything and everything can now be ‘artified’. A big part of this new openness is the IT boom and the unprecedented shrinkage it had caused to the world. A lot that was earlier considered un-doable is now possible. An image, for example, can be magnified 1000-fold and printed on to any surface. Art is slowly moving from the realm of visibility into that of thought. And it is within this realm of thought that a great creative convergence is taking place.
In India we had had a somewhat early start in the ’90s with shows of ‘calendar art’, installations inspired by kitschy juice stalls and with Bollywood making its presence felt in the works of serious artists. The new century has been seeing an expansion of ideas about art. Purists are beginning to see the avant-gardist’s desire to break free from the shackles of medium and message. Notions about art and authorship, originality and function, concept and technique are being questioned and the art of the soil is getting its place under the sun.
For most people anywhere in the world Pakistani trucks are like creatures of myth and legend. They may exist somewhere in the past (or future) but there’s just no scientific reason why they should at all. No one even knows exactly where they started to be like this. Or who was the first guy who painted his truck like that. Among the many versions I was to hear in Pakistan the one that sticks is that they are actually carts of long ago. They have over time developed steering wheels and acquired an engine. But essentially, they are carts that once pulled along the ancient Silk Route like herds of fiercely-coloured but harmless dinosaurs. Looking at them this way laid to rest a lot of speculation in my mind about their origins.
‘Truck Art’ as this growing movement is increasingly being referred to is actually an organic, indigenous Pop Art movement. A movement that is defined by its colours: shocking pinks, blinding yellows, fluorescent greens and iridescent blues. It is traffic- stopping stuff. Almost as if the painters have sponged up all colour from their surroundings, distilled it to a point of severe concentration and then used it on their vehicles. The resulting art is ‘folkish’ both in the repetition of its motifs and its acceptance of orthodoxy (its own), yet it sits very confidently at places usually given to showing all that’s considered high brow.
In other parts of the world communities that base their livelihoods on the movement of cargo don’t any more have the time to devote to decorating their vehicles. They have taken to easy-to-keep trucks with factory-made bodies. It’s not only cheaper and low-maintenance it also doesn’t attract too much attention. A big part of the trucker’s life is spent on the road where he’s only a number on the numberplate. He is after all a solitary creature. Although, he likes topping the road’s food-chain, he doesn’t like to make a big show of it. In fact he likes to blend in as much as possible. The fact that he is hidden from other ‘lesser’ vehicles is to him a very reassuring thought. He may be the king of the road but he doesn’t like to brag.
But the Pakistani trucker is a different kettle of fish. He is a man who loves his truck, deeply. To him it is not a ‘beast of burden’ but a piece of art that needs to be shown off. And admired.
Like any growing economy trucks are also Pakistan’s lifeline. They transport food, fuel, cattle and other essential commodities to and from different corners of the country. They are sometimes associated with illicit trade and weapons smuggling too. But it’s not just the inside that’s important in the life of a truck. Its outside too becomes a significant carrier… of ideas. Of messages that are subliminal as well as loud, messages that run on wheels from their point of origin to some other remote address somewhere. They are like art galleries carrying with them the works of many artists, telling many tales, many narratives: from the owner’s provenance to his sporting heroes to what he feels about his country’s missile programme, just about anything finds expression here.
On the long and strapping Motorway connecting Lahore and Peshawar they also provide visual relief in an otherwise minimalist horizon of asphalt, earth and sky. Watching them whiz past you, you’re zapped back to the days of the Silk Route, when caravans made up most of the traffic in these parts. Camels and some elephants in carved wood caparisons sometimes covered with sheets of beaten gold and silver, studded with beads and mirror-work and overhangs of patterned jute and cotton weaves. Others loaded with silks, jewels and spices trudged these paths leaving behind them a buzz of aromas and a Babel of sounds. The trucks of today don’t make that sort of a lingering spectacle, because they have speed on their side. But what they lose out to speed they make up with size, as they cover the length and breadth of the country dissolving differences, tying it up together as only ideas can. This image of a truck in fact connects directly to the ‘bioscope man’ who was a regular at village fairs. How with his double-drum (dumroo) he announced the highlights of the magic contained inside his painted box. The truck in Pakistan becomes an inverted analogue of the bioscope: coloured and 'imagified' (unlike the bioscope) on the outside as they travel and connect people through the use of visuals.
Where similarities abound between most things in India and Pakistan, there is strangely no equivalent of the Pakistani truck in India. Trucks in India are treated merely as carriers of goods at best and at worst, traffic-devouring monsters. Visually too they aren’t the best-looking sights you’d see driving on Indian highways. Most truck decoration in India consists of a few brush-strokes of mandatory information: National Permit/State Permit, OK Tata, Horn Please and stuff like that. Sometimes it also includes caveats against the evil eye, the most common of which is, ‘Buri nazar wale, tera mu kala!’ (Shame on you, evil eyed one!). Besides this, there is some glittery jhalar, some cloth hair (paranda) and some birds in flight indicating the nature of the truck’s long journey. Apart from this there is little that speaks of feelings of ownership and pride that trucks in Pakistan evoke.
Pakistani trucks are like brides, dressed from head to toe in the finest of silks and choicest handmade kundan. They also remain, in a sense, frozen in time… in a state of prenuptial decoration. A state that never lets the grime of the kitchen or the dust of the fields settle on itself. Never goes through the rigours of child-birth. These truck-brides never turn into housewives, mothers, widows and ageing matriarchs. This curious state of perpetual bridehood is what makes them so unique.
It speaks of a deeper infatuation with the prenuptial bride, a nubile virgin who though ready for the rites of marriage is still waiting for true love to rescue her. In her dressy allure she is very much the cynosure of all eyes yet she has her eyes set on the distant horizon, waiting for her true love to emerge from it. Love and longing have for too long enraptured the subcontinental imagination. Every age, every era has had its own doomed love story. From the complicated romance of Radha and Krishna to the Heer-Ranjha tragedy and the Devdas debacle, there has been no shortage of tales of longing and separation. The truck painters have sort of internalised this cruel fate. And so they heap upon the truck their talent, their sweat and long hours, creating a spiritual facsimile of the Taj Mahal or the ultimate expression of love.
Much of the imagery that decorates the outer body comes from a sense of virginal romance. A sense fed on the legends of Heer-Ranjha and Laila-Majnun. The imagery becomes both a celebration of and a cautionary tale against such a doomed romance. In fact the lines between the two functions are often so blurred that it becomes imperative for the painter to show this through an obsessive detailing that covers every possible space of the truck’s body with symbols of union such as flowers, eyes, birds of paradise and fruit.
Not surprisingly, truck art becomes an advertisement for a semiotic paradox, rooted as it is in a deeper well of subcontinental prejudice where the wife evokes feelings of ownership and familiarity in contrast to the mystery and allure of a bride. It’s not rare for drivers to show-off their truck-brides, especially to camera-carrying foreigners. Doors are swung open, hatches unbolted and poses struck to show interested onlookers the love and pride a driver feels for his bride. ‘Please see inside… this is Pakistan tradition,’ invitations such are these are commonplace as even the busiest driver or his cleaner will put aside other business to devote himself completely to the more important task of getting clicked with his bride.
But I think the connection runs deeper. The bride in her mystery also begins to take on the nature and persona of a mother. One of his mother’s greatest allure in the mind of the Greek hero Oedipus was his sense of ownership of her. In his mind his mother belonged to no one but himself and this right his father could only challenge with the threat of mortal combat. Where in most cultures it’s considered natural for a man to refer to his favourite ride by a feminine name or pronoun, such identification in the context of the truck-bride takes on a world of textures and meanings. Especially, when ‘she’ begins to resemble a Greek tragedienne. Or she becomes, in the imagination of the driver-son, a complex creature of myth. One that is always young and beautiful and in her allure and beauty belongs to no one. Not even the driver-son, who labours daily to keep her looking like a million bucks. He spends hours of his time and loads of his earnings making sure that his truck-bride looks her pre-nuptial best. And yet in his deepest heart he isn’t sure whether he’s won her affections and for how long.
So what are his rewards for this kind of unceasing adulation and heroine-worship? In exchange of this he gets to possess her, remain eternally in utero, womb-bound, because it’s the only place where he feels safest even when crossing the most dangerous stretches of his journey. He recognises that the womb is his ultimate sanctum where no one can reach him, no one can intrude. From this place he can, give or take a few minor hitches, feel truly like god, unseen yet in total control.
The truck-bride’s ‘cockpit’ is not only the hub for various machine functions it also becomes the truck’s creative pabulum, from which emerges much colour and art. And the son-driver inside this cockpit-womb becomes the eternal foetus giving rise to a slew of outward (hormonal) changes to the person of the mother-truck. By possessing the womb the driver gets to direct a lot of the truck-bride’s affairs. Things like her outward adornment, the parts of her body that need alteration, rework and refitting. All this he directs and manages from the cocoon of the cockpit.
The womb is also a veritable shrine, a sacralised space containing all that is not of this world. It’s the seat of the powers that need to be propitiated for the relationship to grow and flourish without any hiccups. Like an invisible umbilicus, framed pictures of the Ka’aba, verses from the Quran and different names of Allah take up the space above the windscreen. It is almost as if this metaphorical bride-son relationship is claiming divine sanction.
One reason for the successful perpetuation of this paradox, where purity and incest go hand in hand, is the space that sainted motherhood occupies in the subcontinental imagination. The mother figure is the ultimate centre of everything. Everything emerges from her and finally goes back into her. Every female form, therefore, has within it a mother. This all-encompassing feminine in fact disinfects the paradox of all incestual overtones. Instead it creates, in the minds of its bearers, a mysterious transcendence that is god.
Trucks in India too have this form of sacral space devoted to the gods. But one significant difference is the absence of art on the truck’s outer body. Some feel the difference has roots in the Islamic prohibition of making images (of man). So where the Indian trucker finds no need to give colour and form to his relationship with his ride, his Pakistani counterpart finds it impossible not to. Because for him the truck becomes a vehicle of transgression, the bearer of the impossible, the carrier of art and ideas… boldly going where no man could ever go… all by himself.
© Dhiraj Singh 2009
* Published in Art&Deal magazine (Creators of New Media; vol. 6 no. 3 issue no. 29)