Why is truck art important in Pakistan?
The space is special because it is usually reserved for Pakistani national heroes and actors/singers.
Peshawar painter Haji Naz, 65, who has painted portraits on trucks in Pakistan for more than five decades, says a face painted on a truck symbolizes people’s immense love for that personality.
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“In my career I have painted thousands of trucks. The favorites of the people over the years have included General Ayub Khan, General Raheel Sharif, poet Allama Iqbal and most recently Imran Khan. From the Pakistani music industry, the portraits of singers Atta Ullah Khan Esakhelvi and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have been painted on a large scale. To this day, we are commissioned to paint General Ayub Khan and even freedom fighter Abdul Ghaffar Khan… Benazir Bhutto has always been one of the favorites among women,” says Naz.
He adds that some drivers also have portraits of their family members painted, which in turn shows how important the space is to them.
Why is the truck tribute to Moosewala special?
Actors Divya Bharti, Aishwarya Rai and Mamta Kulkarni are among the few Indians whose portraits can still be seen on trucks in Pakistan even today. “Moosewala is probably the first Sikh with an Indian turban to have this space, but not the first Indian,” says Naz, adding: “Even now I paint the portraits of Divya Bharti on trucks.”
Speaking of Moosewala’s popularity in Pakistan, Rizwan Mughal from, son of a truck artist from Rawalpindi, said: “It is because of his humble beginnings and struggle in life that people here connect with him. His songs were close to real life. There is a huge craze for Punjabi songs here.”
Before his assassination, Moosewala had also promised his fans a tour of Pakistan with live shows in Lahore and Islamabad “before the end of 2022”.
Where did truck art begin and how did it become popular?
Truck art started in Peshawar and Karachi in the 1950’s to meet the demands of truck drivers who wanted their trucks to look presentable.
Slowly, this unique mix of colors and murals, accompanied by localized handmade accessories, gained international fame.
In 2019, UNESCO used this art form to raise awareness for girls’ education in the Kohistan district of Pakistan.
Ejaz Ullah Mughal, whose father the late Habeeb was one of the first truck artists in Rawalpindi in 1956, recalls how officials of the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) ridiculed truck art at the time.
“It was around 1952 when some local artists started painting trucks, license plates and carvings to embellish them. It was a localized art form that traveled all over the world as it became popular among the foreigners who came to Pakistan to have their vintage vehicles decorated. The production of Bedford trucks was stopped long ago by the British company, but in Pakistan they still work and look brand new because of the truck art. Truck artists are usually self-taught without fancy degrees,” Mughal says.
People are known to spend Rs 1 lakh to Rs 20 lakh in Pakistani currency to get their trucks painted even now. But the art form is slowly dying out.
“There are now only a few (truck artists) left in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Karachi who know original work,” Mughal added.
Tariq Ustaad, a truck artist from Rawalpindi who has been in the business since 1971, says truck art became exquisite and more intricate over time.
“It was very simple when we started. We used to complete five trucks in a day, now one truck in five days. There were times when some drivers even got the keys to their trucks from gold,” says Ustaad.
Niaz Gul, a transporter from Peshawar, said there used to be even a trend to decorate buses, but it died with time.
Bahaar Ali, another truck artist, says: “It is only in some pockets of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in Pakistan that truck art is still visible because people here love to drive trucks. Efforts are needed to preserve this dying heritage. Hamara kaam to har truck ko dulhan ki tarah sajaana hai taki sab nazrein ussi par tiki rahein (Our job is to decorate every truck like a bride so that people can’t take their eyes off it).”