You don’t have to venture far in Bangladesh to encounter a rickshaw, the nation’s most popular means of transport. Powered by the pedalling of wallahs (rickshaw men) through rain, hail or shining humidity, rickshaws are truly all purpose vehicles. The number of rickshaws in Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) is well over 600,000, and this makes for some stiff competition for business. But the crowds of rickshaw wallahs that glide through intersections and sit poised at shopping mall entrances posses a unique weapon in the conflict for customers — art.
Rickshaws in Bangladesh are decorated from bumper to bell with paintings, engravings, tassels, embroidery and even gold leaf in an attempt to attract customers. The art must be eye-catching but not too elaborate in case it disappears in clouds of exhaust before it can be fully appreciated. And rickshaw art is incredibly diverse as the rickshaw fleet owners, the ‘maliks’, each have their own tastes and budgets. This is contemporary art at its most contemporary: commercial, competitive and on a massive scale.
The centrepieces of these commuting creations are the backboards. The backboards are the largest blank canvases available and painted vibrantly with rural scenes, animals, the rich and the famous, great monuments and religious symbols. The artists that are commissioned to paint these scenes are known as ‘mistris’.
Rickshaw art is not just a form of expression, it’s also highly competitive. The mistris want contracts to decorate rickshaws and the maliks want to own the most elaborate vehicles in their quest to attract customers.
At peak hour in Dhaka you find that as the gridlock closes in, you can just lean back and appreciate the visions of thousands of maliks and the expressions of thousands of mistris that turn the streets into a vibrant canvas in the fading light.