Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Rickshas Tell All

January 20th, 2011 · No Comments


I’m a big fan of the theory that the key to understanding societal shifts is to pay close attention to the art of the everyday. A Chinese politician who may or may not have been Deng Xiaoping is credited with summarizing this logic during the sunset of Mao Zedong’s reign, when he was asked to comment on the import of Beijing’s omnipresent wall posters: “If one knows the nuance, the walls tell all.”

Several months back, I copped that line for a post about the supposed wisdom contained in bathroom graffiti. Today I turn Microkhan’s attention to a far more gorgeous art form: the festooning of rickshas in Bangladesh. Joanna Kirkpatrick, the West’s leading authority on the matter, argues that observers of the teeming South Asian nation would be well-advised to note trends in ricksha art:

Ricksha arts flow with the times, and what one sees on many of the vehicles often reflects current political passions or conflicts. Widespread decoration of rickshas began during the separation from Pakistan, when the doyen of ricksha artists in Dhaka, R.K. Das, began portraying battle scenes. Many rickshas of that era bore paintings of Mukti Bahini fighters in action. Others simply showed scenes of air or sea combat, the new Bangladeshi flag, or animals in combat.

Ricksha decoration continued, with one fad following another: first movie scenes, then birds on every panel, then fantastic Himalayan landscapes, animal fables, and futuristic city scenes with crisscrossing aerial roadways, complete with rushing trains, buses, minivans and stretch limousines, usually colored bright red. (Lately, compact cars have begun replacing the limousines in such scenes.)

Kirkpatrick adds here that a trend of more recent vintage is rickshas that celebrate jihadism—surely a worrying trend in a nation with the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population.

(Image via this fantastic gallery)

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