It was a few days ago that I was asked to write a few lines on the truck art of Pakistan for publication in a calendar. While composing the paragraph, I was struck with the notion to feature this wonderful form of artistic expression that is so popular with the trucking community of the subcontinent, in my Sunday column. I am therefore taking the liberty of borrowing some of my own lines as a preamble for this week’s piece.

“Nowhere is Pakistan’s rich heritage showcased as succinctly as on cargo trucks that ply the length and breadth of the country. This singular art form, known worldwide as ‘Truck Art,’ is the emotional fusion between the driver and the artist. It may radiate nostalgia for hearth and home, patriotism and even adoration for political or showbiz celebrities. In a riot of color and emotion, these images are blended with kaleidoscopic patterns of flora and fauna by artists with no formal art school training. This is one art form that is a true reflection of Pakistani Society – vibrant, colorful and undeniably unique.”

No write up on the current topic would be deemed complete without mentioning the name Kafeel Bhai. Motorists of my generation, driving along the highway linking Peshawar with Karachi, will remember this name painted lovingly with the words ‘Ghotkiwalay’ under it. ‘Kafeel Bhai’ was one of the most popular truck painters in the country, for every tenth truck on Pakistani roads carried his signature. I made a running mention of this gentleman in a column many years ago and was deluged by emails concerning the ‘good old Bhai Sahib’. I hope that this legendary individual is alive and kicking, for his absence from the truck art scene will be difficult to fill.

While graphics form a major part of this art genre, it is the poetic verses and self-invented quotes that are added to the images producing the final ‘pop’ to the overall effect. I once began collecting these gems, but gave up the activity because of professional commitments. Nonetheless, here are some vintage samples from my collection:

“Gul gayay, bulbul gayay, sookhay patay reh gayay; yaar jo thay mit gayay, ulloo ke pathay reh gayay” (Gone are flowers, gone the song birds, only withered leaves remain; gone are the buddies, pals and friends, now only fools remain).

“Kabhi ao na Mardan khushboo lagaa ke” (Adorn yourself with perfume and come to Mardan).

“Teray jaanay ke baad teri yaad aai” (We miss you now that you are no more - caption under a painting of the late President Ayub Khan).

“Pak Fauj Zindabad” (Long live the Pakistan Army).

Truck art is drawing so much attention amongst foreigners that shops (even fashionable ones) dealing in handicrafts, gifts and giveaways now include miniature wooden handmade models of gaily colored trucks in their stocks of products. I have further evidence of this trend as I was recently asked by a Dutch acquaintance if it would be possible to send him an entire truck after dismantling it, along with photographs to help him put it together again. I have yet to query this crazy art fan if he is serious in getting an entire truck shipped from Islamabad to Amsterdam and my lack of response is motivated by the knowledge that undertaking such a project will be a nerve racking task involving time and effort to dismantle and pack the cargo and then go through interminable official channels in order to complete the shipping. I am however mulling over the idea of buying a set of miniatures and sending it to him as a gift in the hope that he gives up his crazy scheme.

The bottom line is that truck art has been here for as long as I can remember and even before that, and it needs to be preserved as a unique part of our cultural heritage. It would be nice if ‘LokVirsa’ or even the National College of Art were to hold an exhibition showcasing this vibrantly creative form of expression and the people who have kept it alive for us to see and enjoy.

The writer is a historian.