The painted rickshaws outside Kolkata

Painted rickshaws are common in many parts of eastern India. On recent trips I’ve spent time photographing them in various places: first in Tripura, then in Assam, and most recently, last week, in the outskirts of Kolkata. A folk tradition of art is very alive in this part of the country, and artists make some money decorating things, the most visible of them being this common mode of transport. Interestingly, rickshaws in Kolkata are as bland as the taxis you see in Mumbai. You see these beautiful pieces of folk art as soon as you cross the boundary of the city. I wonder whether it is municipal rules which prevent this style from diffusing into the city. These paintings seem to be of two kinds. One is a panel which is painted and fixed on to the back of the rickshaw. The other is painted directly on to the side of the rickshaw.

The paintings are stylized. The sunsets, the covered boats, snow covered peaks, the calligraphic stylization of flying birds; these are motifs which appear again and again. Interestingly, I saw only one religious theme, and that was a picture of Kali. I hadn’t realized that parrots are a favourite of folk painters, perhaps that is a recent development. One may call the style a modern vernacular, so different from the Kalighat style of the 19th century, and the Shantiniketan modernists of the mid- and late-20th century. I suppose this vernacular must have developed in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and was the background from which the Bengal school rose in the early 20th century. It is wonderful to see that this folk tradition remains alive even now. Perhaps it will throw up new formal movements in the future.

On the road

We had a bit of a drive ahead of us and our driver pulled into a petrol pump almost as soon as we got on to the highway. I looked out of the window at the truck filling up next to us. I’ve written about art work on Indian trucks many times before, but this looked different. At eye level with me was some of the usual kitsch (featured photo), but it was executed perfectly. None of the distortions of naive art. This was a master at work.

I got off and walked around the truck. No amateur, the artists who worked on this truck. Stencils had been used. This medium is becoming commercial! But just look at that swan: wonderful lines. Never seen something like that on a truck. This could be a well-trained commercial artist, one who could as easily design a logo.

Around another tyre-well, more kitsch, this time from some cartoon. But look at that repeating motif that arches around the tyre. It is not only executed flawlessly over and over (see also the featured photo), but has been designed to be easy to execute.

An elegantly executed Hanuman was spray painted on with a stencil elsewhere on the truck. There were numerous small pieces rather than a single overall theme which I’ve seen before on trucks. Is this good or bad? Am I seeing the beginning of the commercialization of truck art? Is this the end of King Rat? By all accounts small businesses have given way to large conglomerates over the last three years. Perhaps in future large fleets of trucks will be decorated by one commercial artists’ firm, instead of one truck one artist.

Moving art

I saw very little street art in Nairobi, but there was a lot of art on the streets. It was on the private buses and matatus which you can see everywhere on the roads. Here is a small gallery of this art, collected as I was driven around the streets of the city. I was told that some of the artists charge a lot for the paintings. It is clear why. Enjoy paging through the gallery; just click on any thumbnail to open it.

Things, beautiful things

As a tourist in Kenya you will see a lot of handicrafts, from roadside stalls to museum gift shops. One thing you cannot miss seeing is the beautiful sense of design in every piece. Things for everyday use are sold on the pavement: from wooden furniture to beautifully decorated trays. I suppose these things are used by locals, but I could easily imagine us keeping one of these trays on our table as a fruit basket. Tourists are confronted with little (or big) carved pieces of stone or wood. They are beautifully decorated with the colours, lines, circles, and stippling that I began to identify as a local artistic idiom. Click on any of the images below to go into a better view of the merchandise. I really loved them.

All this beauty comes from a land which was systematically devastated by wars of slavery, during which able-bodied people were largely taken away captive. Who makes these, I asked now and then. Often the answer is mzee, a Swahili word meaning old man, used more as a term of respect than a description of age. If art like this is the remnant of the culture of this continent, I wonder what it will be like when it comes to a full flowering.