Rickshaws are all the rage this time of the year. It took a ridiculous ban on another equally traditional symbol to bring the oft-derided transport back into the limelight. An integral part of our culture and one which is, inadvertently or not given the negative sentiments attached to it, a symbol of our country. And a crucial part of this bright, in-your-face appearance is the art behind every rickshaw canvas. We’ve all been used to seeing these colourful pictures and messages behind a rickshaw, but have we ever given a thought to the artists behind them? It’s been a year since The Rickshaw Canvas started up and right now their existence seems to be of utmost importance. Today we’re banning the lungis on rickshawalas. Who’s to say we don’t end up banning it altogether in the near future?
Started by Mushfiq Wahed and Kazi Raisa Ashrafi, The Rickshaw Canvas provides a platform for exposure to talented rickshaw artists by promoting and selling their work (all on tin, as is the tradition) in frames for home and office décor. How did this come to be? “Well, I was out one day for street photography, when I suddenly noticed that all the new motor rickshaws had no art on them,” says Mushfiq. “This perplexed me so I went to Bongshal (the rickshaw hub of the capital) and I came to know that rickshaw artists were fading away. That was when we decided something had to be done in order to preserve this tradition.”
Rickshaws have been taken for granted by us for, usually, the entirety of our lives. But there’s so much going on in a rickshaw that once we do realign our eyes properly to the beauty of it. Raisa says, “Rickshaws are basically a moving exhibition hall of colours and images. Art, as a whole, doesn’t necessarily have to convey a deep rooted philosophy or perspective; it can be tacky and vibrant. In fact, that’s what sets rickshaw art apart from all else and adds to its beauty and psychedelic feel. There can, however, be nothing worse for an artist than to be unappreciated for his work. Especially these rickshaw artists, who are usually very poor and this causes them to lose heart and slowly switch away from the job.”
Another aspect of much concern is the fact that this has been quite often termed as ‘poor man’s art’, not measuring up to the standards of sophistication of the modern man. “One of our main goals in this social business is to make sure rickshaw art sheds this unfair tag,” Mushfiq says, “It has been a thriving culture in our country for a long time, and given the right type of exposure, it can be reinstated to its original status once again. We also want to make sure the artists get a certain amount of economic security to be able to practice this once again, without the worry of making ends meet hanging over their heads.”
So the next time you look at the back of a rickshaw and see peacocks/ villages/ blood dripping from Shakib Khan’s face, know that it might not be long before you’re staring at blank stretches of canvas with screen printed colours. And that’s a loss you’ll feel only after it’s happened. “We are all rather fascinated by the blatant use of gawdy, cinematic colours by these artists, be it just for a laugh even. Rickshaws will always be here (we hope!) and we want to make sure the art and artists behind them also remain. Otherwise, our beloved Dhaka city would soon fade into gray nothingness.”
The Rickshaw Canvas operates both here and abroad. The founders have had to move to Melbourne for higher studies but the business is still going strong. Checkout www.facebook.com/rickshaw.canvas for pictures of the paintings on offer and their prices, or even just to give them a shout out. Let’s not all fall victim to the age of technology and completely overlook this integral part of our culture; let’s make sure that our beloved country always contains the crescendo of colours that it’s known for.