Since the 1940s, rickshaws have roamed the streets of Dhaka, becoming the country’s most popular mode of transport.
While rickshaw art has undergone several changes over the last few decades, they are a popular form of art historically looked down upon by the elite classes of society. Rickshaw art often uses quotes and proverbs, images of birds and plants are common motifs, and the form is frequently used to express religious beliefs or social commentary.
Initially, the backs of rickshaws consisted mostly of floral landscapes, rural life and animals symbolizing Bengali folk traditions and culture. Then, in the lead up to the 1970s and the Liberation War, rickshaw art became more political and was used to promote patriotic messages across the country. In the 1980s and 1990s, rickshaws were adorned with the faces of movie stars such as Josim and Rubel. More recently, much of this art has been replaced with business advertisements.
We can see different styles of rickshaw art in different districts. For instance, rickshaws in Chittagong tend to have more religious paintings than rickshaws in Dhaka, where floral patterns or scenery is used. Comilla, on the other hand, has plain rickshaws with beautiful dark blue or green hoods.
The enamel paintings of rickshaws use lively, bold, bright and raw colours, like fluorescent green and dark red with images ranging from the animal kingdom to nature to cinema. They use bright colours not only because they are more eye-catching but because they are also visible and durable on polluted city streets. The blaze of colours also helps to make them longer lasting.
Telling climate change stories
While the rickshaw painting is an art form that is slowly fading away, participants at the Climate, Culture, and Art Symposium held last month at IUB, were tasked with challenge of using the medium to tell a climate change story.
Since rickshaws travel through the winding streets of the city, such a popular art form can help pose difficult questions about what it means to live in a warmer world
Two master rickshaw artists, Shohrab and Solayman, came from Old Dhaka to teach students the art of rickshaws and help facilitate their paintings.
Shohrab has painted rickshaws since the 1970s and has witnessed many of the changes to the art form. Although he believes there are countless ways to express oneself through rickshaw art, he sticks to a distinctive style of his how that is oriental in flavour.
“I believe artists can show our world of tomorrow better than politicians and analysts,” he explains, smiling warmly.
In his time, he has focused on film stars, rural life, vivid cityscapes, environmental issues, folk tales, feminine grace, peacocks, human figures, flora and fauna and much more in making his compositions.
On the other hand, Solayman has been a rickshaw artist for the last 11 years and was part of the team that created the walls at Jatra Biroti in Banani. He learnt the trade from his father.
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Traditional rickshaw art depicting a crisis of water in the forest Courtesy
For him, rickshaw art is about evoking an emotional response that touches hearts and minds of ordinary people.
When it comes to climate change, he argues, rickshaw art could be a powerful medium to make environmental issues more of a priority in the country.
At the symposium, participants created a sequence through rickshaw art portraying how both nature and culture in Bangladesh are being affected by climate change.
The sequence of paintings combined other related environmental issues such as pollution, deforestation, and global warming.
They attempted to portray environmental themes not in a heavy-handed way, but rather in a pleasing way that draws the viewer in and allows them to contemplate the message of living within nature’s limits.
Rickshaw art could again become a popular medium to build social awareness in our society about such issues as climate change.
Since rickshaws travel through the winding streets of the city, such a popular art form can help pose difficult questions about what it means to live in a warmer world in a country like Bangladesh. We could even use the medium to dream up new solutions.
Such art has the ability to encourage reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue and foster new ideas about our relationship with nature; as well as offering a powerful and democratic way of expressing and shaping new values. Rickshaw art could once again become a popular medium in Bangladesh.
Mahmuda Mity and Noor-Elahi Nahiyan are young researchers at ICCCAD, IUB. They are focused on climate change issues ranging from migration to adaptation strategies.