TRUCKS IN INDIA are not merely motored beasts of burden. Neither are they a gender-neutral ‘it’. Most truck drivers only refer to their vehicles as an affectionate ‘she’, as a sturdy companion offering both the warm intimacy of a devoted wife and the security of their faraway homes. Perhaps, that is the reason drivers embellish their vehicles with the attention to detail usually reserved for a bejewelled bride on her wedding night. One can only indulge in symbolic speculation, for the origins of this socio-cultural phenomenon remains obscured in mystery.
However, what’s undeniable is that colourful hand-painted trucks are one of the signature highway spectacles of the Indian subcontinent, often making dreary road trips a near-psychedelic experience. Truck art motifs include the ubiquitous Horn Ok Please, roses, peacocks, lotuses, elephants, an eagle perched on a globe, verdant village scenes, suckling cows, a pair of doves, religious verses, mythological totems, auspicious sayings signifying favourable luck on hazardous roads and warding off evil eyes, among many others. However, the surface uniformity of truck motifs can be deceiving since it belies a few choice personal flourishes: most trucks also reflect their owners’ personal life mottos in the form of witty aphorisms and unsolicited bits of startlingly personal advice.
Also, while the first impression of decorated truck bodies is a riot of bright colours, they hide behind their exuberant facades a wealth of subtle markers which are telling signs of which state the truck was decorated in. For the abundance of truck art is testimony to an underground and unsung army of painters who decorate trucks while paying heed to an unspoken and undocumented aesthetic convention, one that is passed across generations as a traditional family occupation. Significantly, most truck decorators consider themselves artists and not craftsmen, thus cementing their occupation’s position as classic outsider art.
Sources in the transportation industry tell us that some of the bigger hubs for truck decoration are Indore, Jodhpur, Vijaywada, Sirhind and Belgaum. We will be visiting these places in the course of our project and glean from truck decorators the reasons for this uncanny consistency in motifs sans any organized means of perpetuation and in the process, gain an anecdotal history of this uniquely subcontinental phenomenon.