“Truck art is ubiquitous throughout Pakistan, it provides a window into the identities of truck-owners, drivers and the artists who paint the trucks,” explained Dr Jamal J. Elias, Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Religious and South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, while addressing a packed auditorium on March 12 at AKU as part of the Sixth Sense Forum lecture series.
Dr Elias’ talk, “Understanding Pakistani Society and Modernity through the Window of a Truck,” highlighted a different aspect of truck decoration, one that moves beyond the medium being just an art form with a vibrantly chaotic colour palate.
Having conducted extensive research over a period of seven years into the underlying reasons which influence the way trucks are decorated, Dr Elias is a veritable expert on the subject. His book, On Wings of Diesel: Trucks, Identity and Culture in Pakistan, is the product of these years of research and is the recipient of the annual book prize from the American Institute of Pakistan Studies.
Elaborating on how trucks become visual representations of important developments and shifts in cultural patterns in the country through the way religious, political and social symbols are used and adapted for decoration, Dr Elias spoke about the various nuances that are part of the process.
In a country like Pakistan, which has a very limited railway transport system, trucks are the most important part of the trade economy. The colourfully decorated vehicles are a common sight on roads in Pakistan, often loaded with goods to be transported across large distances.
The owners of these trucks are aware that their vehicles are going to be seen throughout the length and breadth of the country, and invest considerable time and financial resources in decorating them. The trucks, which can cost over US $16000 to refurbish and decorate, give expression to an entire subculture in Pakistan. They also represent a labour of love for their owners.
Dr Elias, who serves as Special Advisor to the AKU Provost, informed the audience that the vehicles represent both a significant financial investment for their owners, as well as an important way for them to display their identities and affiliations.
The talk was also webcast via WebEx to the UK, Nairobi and Tanzania.