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Published: December 5, 1997
Bangladeshi Arts of the Ricksha
by Joanna Kirkpatrick
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Joanna Kirkpatrick, 1997.
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|"Trains", says a fashion report, "are very plain this season." They are awfully plain. ....but there won’t be anything really artistic in trains until Barnum gets on the road with those cars frescoed with blue monkeys, yellow tigers, purple elephants, striped snakes and things engaged in bloody and mortal combat.
|from THE COACH PAINTER,
vol.1 no.2 Newark NJ, March 1880
The three wheeled pedicab or cycle ricksha (1) of Bangladesh has been around at least since the late forties and the partition of India. In those days they were left more or less undecorated. Sometime in the sixties heads of movie stars began to appear as decorative motifs on the golboards, or small round shields attached to the back of the rick, along with floral designs, in Rajshahi and Dhaka. (I don't know when they began to decorate rickshas in Chittagong. Perhaps some viewer of this website could about this.)
One finds the most glamorous ricksha arts in Dhaka, with Rajshahi being a runner up for elaboration, color and range of thematic content. In Dhaka in the 80's (I was last there in 1987), about eighty per cent of the rickshas were decorated. Chittagong and Comilla areas, where I checked the ricksha art scene in 1986, revealed less enthusiasm about decorating them at all, and, if decorated, less human images, more floral or scenery images. Chittagong is considered to be a more pious town than Dhaka, while in Sylhet, considered to be religiously even more pious, the rickshas were completely undecorated. A sub-type of pious ricksha art in and around Comilla is the plain ricksha with beautiful dark blue or green hood on which is sewn an applique of a minaret or floral design enshrining the word "Allah", or a ricksha with hood deco showing a mosque with minaret, sickle moon (Muslim moon) above, and "Alla hu" appliqued in Bengali.
Ricksha art began to flourish during the freedom struggle with Pakistan in the early seventies. During this war there were patriotic images showing people saluting the Bangladesh flag, or an astronaut planting a Bangladesh flag on the moon! This period also inspired war atrocity scenes, where the crime was painted on one side of the picture: Paki soldiers raping women and killing; and on the other side the punishment: valorous Bengali mukti bahini bayonetting the Paki enemy. Other panels showed only the crime. One ricksha artist told me that the government became aware around 1972 that in-country foreigners were taking a huge interest in atrocity images by purchasing panels in the market, so the government sent round the word to the artists and makers to stop painting these scenes. By 1975, when I first went to Bangladesh, one could find a few faded atrocity pictures. In Rajshahi at that time, only worn, old war scene panels of fighting tanks, planes and ships remained.
I first saw the ricksha art in fall of 1975 as I got settled in Rajshahi, where I was attached as a researcher and visiting professor of anthropology at the Institute of Bangladesh Studies, Rajshahi University. At that time Rajshahi ricksha art was not flourishing, but there were some wondrous animal scenes, including animals unknown to Bangladesh such as giraffes and kangaroos! My favorite was a panel of parrots playing sangeet with harmonium.
Alas for me, in 1975-76 I was not in Dhaka often enough to see much ricksha art, but I did notice a lot of scenes with animals, and one featuring the American film actress Jayne Mansfield. It was a variation on the "waterhole" scene of animals in threat postures on both sides of a stream, only in this case the animals were saluting the actress, the elephant with raised trunk, the hippo with mouth agape showing its knobby teeth.
I began a focused study of ricksha art on a return trip to Dhaka in 1977-78, when I met artist Alauddin (art-name "Naj"), one of Dhaka's finest ricksha artists. He was busy making various animal fable pictures. At this time Dhaka was going through an "official" reaction against film stars and human images on the rickshas, so the artists were painting myriads of fantastic birds, either just congregating, or billing and cooing like lovers. Animal fable scenes were also very common. One which I saw in passing and could not photograph showed a cat dressed in business suit talking on the phone while a rat servant brought in the tea. Was this a "fat cat" lampoon? When human images submerge, the animal fable rises. Another fable showed a VIP parading in an open car, with animals holding garlands presenting them in raised salute. The VIP was a lion wearing a turban. Satirical?
Back in Dhaka in 1982, I found a resurgence of popular movie imagery, with marvelous renditions of movie stars, but also continued interest in perennial themes such as the waterhole, the city scene, peaceful animal scenes, animal fables, country village scenes with cow and calf, mosques, the Taj Mahal on a lotus, an elaborate design of the flower vase used as a seatback decoration. A charming feature at this time were the "disco" ricks, which sported an inserted tape player into the base of the seat, which could be activated to play disco music.
In 1986-87, one could find every type of painted imagery in Dhaka--from "filmi" (of the movies) to pious -- and the rickshas in Rajshahi were at their most elaborate, featuring movie stars galore but also beautifully decorated hoods and hood "rumals" (rear curtain of the hood). In Dhaka I found many examples of the "femme fatale" theme, including hood paintings or ricksha panels showing Dosshu Fulon (famous Phulan Devi of India) the female bandit, holding an AK47, or brandishing a pistol. In Rajshahi, the "Nag-Nagini" movie theme-of a brother and sister who could transform themselves into cobras-- was also very popular. There artist Robu produced especially attractive pointillist paintings of Nag-Nagini. In Chittagong I found ricksha panels with human faces--movie material--in the makers' shops, but did not see them on actual ricks. Instead I saw mostly scenery images or peaceful animals. Assisted by fine artist Mr. Chandresekhar, from Chittagong Arts College, I was able to find and visit the mistri dokans (maker shops) which made and sold ricksha decorations, hoods, and decorated parts of ricksha bodies. I found the mostly floral vase designs of the hood rumals to be colorful and technically expert sewn appliques of various plastic materials in colors and scintillating gold and silver plasticine fabrics.
In 1992, my collaborator Kevin Bubriski visited Dhaka to make updated ricksha art photos for our article in the magazine ARAMCO WORLD (Jan-Feb 1994). He found some ricksha panels featuring a hero (to some) of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussain in prayerful pose, surrounded by fighting airplanes. Other types of imagery noted before were still popular. The artist Ahmad, of Ahmad Art in Old Dhaka, was Bubriski's guide for this trip; his panels were featured in the ARAMCO article. The Saddam images indicate to me one of the most interesting aspects of ricksha art, which is that it often reflects the ordinary peoples' interest in what's going on politically in the country (muktijoddha or liberation war images, animal fable lampoons) and also in the world (landing on the moon, the Gulf War images). As social comment, it resembles Trinidadian calypso songs or rap music.
Generally speaking, in the eighties the elites of Bangladesh scorned ricksha art as vulgar while at the same time many fine artists of the country took it seriously as an expression of the taste and interests of the masses. I know this because I visited Dhaka Arts College and Chittagong Arts College and spoke with fine artists in those institutions. When I asked ricksha-wallas, ricksha artists, and sellers of ricksha decor who was the audience for this art, they all replied one way or another, "the ordinary people". One man even used the English word "ordinary", as in "ordinari lok".
What sort of art IS ricksha art? From my outsider point of view, I consider it "peoples' art". It is not necessary to force it into a unitary category as it combines folkloric, movie, political and commercial imagery and techniques. It serves the expression of heart's desires of the man in the street for women, power, wealth, as well as for religious devotion. Ricksha art also serves prestige and economic functions for the people who make, use and enjoy it.
In 1975-76 in Rajshahi, most of the painted panels on the rickshas were signed with the maker's name. In Dhaka, artists signed their own names. Nowadays, rickshas sport both the maker names as well as artist names. The artists are not formally trained, but had learned their art either from a parent, another ricksha artist, or on their own. Their imagery sources included calendars, book illustrations, children's books, movie posters, other rickshas, advertisements, and their own imaginations. Some ricksha artists also paint movie posters and calendars. Movie banner artists specialize in just banners, but they too follow poster material. Some imagery appears to have rather old sources: the fantastic city scenes, which show modern and traditional styles of architecture and planes, trains and ships, appear to have originated in commercial trade imagery popular in the thirties in the west. Locating primary source material depends on guessing or luck, because the artists who painted rickshas in the early days are now gone from the scene.
But let the ricksha artists have the last word: When I asked Alauddin in 1986 if he thought of ricksha art as fine art or as commercial, he said it was commercial art, which to him is art to be seen at a glance, not art to be studied and thought over, such as "fine art". That year I also visited an artist in Rajshahi (having first met him ten years earlier). The man is a prominent sign painter, ricksha artist, and decorative interior wall painter, to whom I put the same question. He told me a witty story about his puzzlement with modern art. He said he had been visiting the Rajshahi University campus to keep a business appointment with one of the professors. While there he noticed a painting hung up on a wall whose subject he could not decipher. It seemed merely a hodgepodge of painted swirls. He asked the professor to tell him what the painting represented and the professor replied, "A girl dancing". Trying to understand, the sign painter asked, "But, how do you know this?" and the professor replied, "The artist told me!"
Also featured as a part of this article are a Gallery of additional images of the Ricksha's of Bangladesh, photos of some of the Artists who have created these works of art, and a biography of the author. Please click on the links below to visit these areas.
1. Rickshaw--Eng. convention of spelling Japanese term. Handpulled ricksha invented in Japan in 1870's.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I spell it the way it is spelled and pronounced in Bengali, ricksha with a long 'a' on the end. Bengali has the 'aw' sound, but it is distinctly not the sound at the end of this word in Bengali! As an anthropologist, I insist on "pc": phonetic correctness! Ideally, it would read: 'riksha' or 'riks_a'. But that would be too much to expect from English readers who expect 'ik' to be written 'ick'. Since writing 'ick' does not alter the sound, whereas writing '-shaw' does alter the sound, I've written it as 'ricksha'. Click here to return to text.
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