Amid the trash-filled streets, bleak concrete-block storefronts, and grimy open-air workshops, Pakistan's decorated trucks stand out in their colorful and vibrantly ornate aesthetics. A typical truck might be festooned with dozens of stamped metal plates, lavishly painted panels detailing birds, saints, and landscapes, a high wooden prow of carved wood, and a long skirt of hundreds of chains with bells on their ends, giving the vehicles their common English moniker, "jingle trucks."
While trucks are also decorated in India and Bangladesh, and in several other Asian and South American countries, truck art has developed to an unparalleled apogee in Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Nor is it just trucks here: passenger buses, water tankers, transport vans, rickshaws, and even vendors' pushcarts are adorned with painted scenes and colorful metal plates. Truck owners will spend thousands of dollars decorating their trucks, the equivalent of up to a year's worth of profit from the vehicle. Yet there seems to be no obvious economic benefit from decorating a truck, particularly in the big urban centers like the port city of Karachi where most business is to be found. Customers don't hire trucks based on how they look. How then to explain Pakistan's beautiful wheeled creatures?
Durriya Kazi, an artist and professor at the University of Karachi, believes that truck art is related to the Sufi tradition of decorating shrines and holy sites as a way to earn religious merit. "The idea is, if we don't honor the truck, it won't give back to us," she said. Kazi has been researching and collecting truck art for decades and traces its genealogy back to older forms and traditions of decorative art.
The first trucks that were widely used in Pakistan, then part of British India, were Bedfords imported after World War I. Many of these are still running in the more rural and isolated routes, where they're known as "Rocket Trucks." They were eventually customized to have high wooden prows on the front of the truck bed—known as the "taj," or crown—as well as large decorative bumpers and wooden paneling inside and outside the cabin, all of which were decorated in increasingly lavish ways.
One craftsman in Karachi to whom Kazi spoke had learned the trade from his father, who had earned his living as an artist decorating the palaces of aristocrats and landlords in the town of Bhuj, which is today across the Indian border in the state of Gujarat. After the turmoil of Partition in 1949, he came to Karachi and started working in the burgeoning truck industry, painting in the same style that he had used on the ceiling panels of manor houses, incorporating motifs from the poetry of Iqbal and other Urdu literary figures.
Today, the stylistic conventions of truck art are continually changing. The rear panel, often decorated with a large portrait, is a particularly interesting place to observe cultural trends. Where the space once featured martyrs from the anti-Soviet jihad, or nationalist heroes from the wars against India—and, at one point, Princess Diana—today you might find a voluptuous Pashto actress or, increasingly, a portrait of the owner's child or even the owner himself—a practice once considered rather immodest. The sheer eclecticism of Pakistan's truck art—which exhibits several regional styles as well as differences across ethnic groups—is a testament to the country's fertile diversity.
"They're totally outside the whole religion debate," Kazi says of the artists. "It really doesn't touch them. If the guy says to them, 'Oh, make me a mosque,' he'll make a mosque. If he says, 'Make Musarrat Shaheen,' he'll make Musarrat Shaheen." (Shaheen is a famously voluptuous Pashto film star.)
In recent years, Pakistani truck art has gained an international profile, thanks in part to the work of scholars like Kazi, who has been involved with bringing exhibits to Japan and Australia and thinks that the surge in interest will help sustain the art form, even as modernized containers and oil tankers are painted in standardized paint schemes. "Suddenly now there's a huge revival," she says. "It's constantly evolving."