By Sonya Rehman
They are everywhere. Those heavy-set Gods of the highway, those mammoth trucks in their entire jazzy splendor. The swirls, the motifs, the colours, the patterns, the tigers, the peacocks, the parrots, the lions, and the roses, the thick lashes on singular eyes, the lips, and (at times) the face of a politician, a star, thrown in for good measure: such a sight for sore eyes on a bland, grey monotonous road and/or motorway.
The trucks, lovingly adorned in paint and jingly bell things – the art form, the vibe, it’s ours – one hundred percent Pakistani. Moving art, racing (yes, racing) down roads, driven by a funky driver, blasting funky tunes, his windows rolled down as he speeds across, amongst the basic, the uniform, the blah vehicles and their blah colours. Tootin’ down to funky town, the pride of our maddening roads. But it doesn’t just end there, as of late, the truck art form has spilled over into home décor, splashing its way across household items, lanterns, mirror frames and what have you. Beautiful, fantastical, colourful. Pakistani.
It was in October this year when I made my way to Rawalpindi from Lahore, to interview one of the most well-known and well-respected truck artists in Pakistan – Haji Habib-ur-Rehman, or, Haji Sahib, as he likes being called. Past car workshops, gas stations, a slum or two, chicken and vegetable shops, I finally found myself face to face with Haji Sahib – a man I’d been wanting to interview for over a year.
He’s a terrific guy. Perhaps in his 80s, I can’t be sure. But he’s friendly and soft spoken – one of those simple, decent, innocent Pakistanis who harbor old values. I walk into his little workshop, past a couple of men who are busy loading a truck. It’s a busy, noisy, mucky area. Men, sweat, and the sound of small and large businesses getting a move on.
The workshop is full of canvases – large and small – stacked up against a wall, with paint cans and brushes piled up on the side. I ask Haji Sahib if we should sit down in the workshop to begin the interview, but he tells me that we ought to sit in his shop upstairs, in the same building. It’s quieter, he says. Walking up two flights of stairs and past three doors, the corridor is dark and rather creepy. But then, Haji Sahib opens the steel door to the shop and light floods into the corridor. Light, and colour. It’s a small shop that would make it uncomfortable if over five people stood in it. It’s stacked up from floor to ceiling with truck art trinkets and bright canvases of trucks that can be bought off the shelf. Mugs, bowls, vases, plates, flour boxes and then some – all painted in brilliant colours and patterns. We sit down on two small wooden chairs and begin talking.
Haji Sahib has been painting trucks, vehicles, and currently, his lovely decoration pieces and crafts since 1955.
“I was in class one or two, when my Aunt’s son came to our house as a guest. He introduced me to painting, after that I immediately became interested and developed a strong liking for it. From then on, I never looked back. Then in 1955 I started learning the art form under the tutelage of a teacher who taught me for about five years,” Haji Sahib says, “After that, I became an ustaad [teacher] myself, although not a very big ustaad,” he smiles.
Haji Sahib attributes his success to Lok Virsa – the National Institute of Folk & Traditional Heritage – an organization in Islamabad that promotes and encourages local art and culture in the country. “Lok Virsa really helped me in my career. It helped in my work reaching a wider market. Khalid Sahib [at Lok Virsa] gave me space there and I began working from there. After that, my name and my work started becoming known and recognized. It’s mainly because of them that I’ve been able to make a living. When I noticed that my work was selling well, I slowly started increasing my output – and I’m still doing that. God-willing, I won’t stop.”
Lok Virsa has been doing commendable work in both its support of, and promotion of, Pakistani art and culture. During the interview Haji Sahib mentions that whenever a festival is held at Lok Virsa, free stalls are given to the local artisans to sell their works. “Sometimes they even give us awards,” he says proudly.
According to Haji Sahib, truck art had initiated about a year or so before he began learning the art in 1955. He speaks fondly of his teachers: Ustaad Muhammad Rafique – his first teacher, a man from Taxila who was working in Rawalpindi at the time. Then there was the late, Ustaad Wadua Ali, who Haji Sahib states, was the main person who took the art form forward. “At the time, while trucks would certainly be painted, it was all very plain,” he says. His other teachers included Ustaad Muhammad Azam and Ustaad Muhammad Yasin – brothers who were dirt poor, but who eventually became very successful in their profession as truck artists at the time.
“When you pose a question to, say, a lawyer or an engineer – related to their profession – their minds will process the question like a computer, and they’d know instantly how to answer the question, or go about the task,” Haji Sahib responds, when I ask him about his own work process and how he decides what colours and motifs to work with. “In the same way, for instance, if someone asks me to paint pigeons, I’ll take the idea forward and make it bigger by adding other things like tigers, parrots, birds and so on.”
Was his family ever against truck art, I ask, gingerly. He laughs. Not really, he answers. “My background is quite religious. My brother used to reprimand and beat me, as did my parents – they wanted me to stop the work I was doing. I used to paint little pictures and hide them in my pockets, so they used to take them out and get mad at me. But I couldn’t give up painting,” Haji Sahib says. “The reason why they wanted me to stop is for religious reasons. But when I became older (and wiser), they stopped interfering in my profession. Sometimes, I’d stay up nights working on something and they’d never reprimand me.”
The artist mentions that he was the youngest in his family. “Whenever I’d leave for work, I’d inform my mother and she’d say; Son, go, Allah rung lavee. So when I got into this profession, my clothes would be full of splashes of paint. So one day my mother asked me; Son, what did you do! And I said; Ma, you used to pray, Allah rung lavee, so look, rung lag gaya!” he laughs. “My mother just looked at me, smiled, and never again commented on my dirty clothes.”
At the time, Haji Sahib tells me that he never understood the true meaning of ‘rung.’
“I used to just take it lightly, like a joke. But only now have I understood and realize the impact of her prayers – thanks to God – the respect that I have gotten. Just like you for instance, you’ve come all the way from Lahore to interview me. This is what you call rung. From God.”
In 2009, a French Doctor by the name of Vincent Loos approached Haji Sahib with a rather unusual request: Loos was interested in having the artist paint a Volkswagen (called ‘Foxy Shahzadi’) from top to bottom as part of a road trip from Islamabad to Paris as a bid to promote and celebrate Pakistani art and culture via truck art.
Loos had spent three years in Pakistan working at PIMS (the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences) and as a sweet farewell; he drove his pretty, colourful little Beetle (along with two friends from Pakistan) on a journey titled the ‘Art on Wheels Tour.’
“I received a lot of fame and respect through that,” Haji Sahib said. It had taken him one month to paint the Beetle – complete with intricate motifs, patterns and paintings of Jinnah, Iqbal and Benazir Bhutto. Apparently Loos had visited the truck market in Islamabad to hunt for an artist. From there, someone led the French Doctor straight to Haji Sahib.
“The art form has definitely suffered in Pakistan,” Haji Sahib answers when I ask him about truck art’s current standing. But it hasn’t been completely obliterated either, he adds. “The reason why it has suffered is because of these computers you know – they just ruined it for us painters,” he chuckles. “Because whatever takes us weeks to paint, by our very own hands, can be made within minutes and hours on a computer. I guess it’s cheaper that way too. Another reason is that there are new trucks in the market – especially those that carry containers – the body doesn’t permit one to paint the whole truck since there isn’t a lot of space to cover.”
According to the artist, the painting of an entire truck is a “long process.”
“The work isn’t solely taken care of by one single painter, denter, engineer or mechanic,” he says, “They all have shops within close proximity and when truck owners approach them, it is collectively decided what is to be done and at what price. Then it could take anywhere between 1-2 months, or, a week to ten days, but one needs a minimum of one week to complete the painting. Also, it’s not a one-man job,” Haji Sahib states, “There are atleast 10-15 painters who work on the vehicle.” And the cost to paint a truck? “I’m not too sure, but in my opinion, anywhere between 40,000 to 50,000 rupees.”
An hour into chatting with the artist, I pick up a big, beautiful flour box – it features a roaring tiger on the lid. It’s gorgeous. I tell Haji Sahib that. It makes him extremely happy. He takes great pride in his work – it is endearing and heartwarming.
Towards the end of the interview, Haji Sahib tells me that it’s imperative for Pakistanis – young and old – to take care of their country. “A young Pakistani’s efforts, for example, should be to excel at his/her studies,” he says, “And older generations should excel at their businesses and professions. We are Pakistan’s machinery – if we’re honest and hardworking, God-willing, we’ll become a very, very strong nation.”
He walks me back to the car and helps me load my box and other items – which I excitedly purchased from his shop – into the backseat. “Will you send me the article when it’s published?” he asks. I assure him that I will. He puts his hand on his heart and thanks me profusely. As the car backs out onto the little, busy road, I watch Haji Sahib as he walks slowly back to his colourful workshop. I hope I see him again, someday.
The Friday Times
*You can buy Haji Sahib’s work by visiting his shop at: Railyway Workshop Road, Police Station Gunjmandi, Near Attock Oil Pump, Rawalpindi. Phone: 0345-5224926