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Love is Life / piyar zindagi hai: W-11 Moving the Human Spirit

A journey via W-11 stakes a claim for the human spirit to not be overlooked in an increasingly homogenising and homogenised world, say co-ordinators of the public art project Mick Douglas & Durriya Kazi.

It is the first time that Nusrat Iqbal and his team of vehicle decorators have moved outside Pakistan. They are more likely to be found in a workshop at one end of the longest mini-bus route that traverses the city of Karachi, from the Port in the south-west to New Karachi in the north-east. The large fleet of buses that ply this route are known beyond the city for their passionate and decorative displays, often featuring the image of a peacock amongst a vibrant dance of colour, sparkling reflection and flashing light. The name of the route appears differently in stylised letters on the front windscreen of each privately owned W-11 bus.

In the contemporary connected metropolis, the advertising industry knows very well that road vehicles have a profitable capacity to attract public attention. The globally affected consumer may expect to see the branding of well-known corporations and products clad to the sides of the vehicles that shuttle our urban landscapes. Thankfully, the decorated vehicles plying the W-11 route are a contemporary anomaly. Words on the side of one W-11 mini-bus without logo or brand, translated from Urdu, read: “love is life”.

Iqbal’s small workshop is itself without decoration. It holds only a few hand tools and is scattered with cuttings of multi-coloured self-adhesive vinyl. A couple of loose photographic prints are stuck to one wall. Iqbal and his workshop partner are pictured on folding chairs on a Karachi beach, cooling their feet in the shallows of the Arabian Sea, facing southward.

“This will be the greatest tram ever seen”, beams Iqbal, imagining the transformation of a tram that will circle the city of Melbourne in March 2006. It is a strange turn. Trams have not been seen in Karachi since the 1970s, when the diesel engine-driven trams were laid to rest. Tramways systems were spawned throughout cities of the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century, including in Karachi, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. Tramways were then a symbolic display, for better or worse, of what the Empire could bring to its colonies. Initially horse-drawn, some systems then went to elaborate underground cable-driven systems, and later moved to electrified systems – as in the case of Melbourne’s trams; or from horse-drawn to engine-driven – as in the case of Karachi. Melbourne is one of the few cities of the Commonwealth to have retained and expanded the tramways system, along with Calcutta. In spite of the worldwide closures of tramways in the 1960s and 70s, this mode of public transport now enjoys a worldwide return, with numerous new systems having been built in the last decade.

Decorating transport is an ancient practice in many cultures, including the Indus valley. Camels, ox carts, river-boats and horses have long been personalised with decorative devices. Modern transport in Pakistan remained unadorned until the 1960s when ownership moved away from the elite to the working classes. The services of court painters who migrated from Kutch Bhuj in the Gujarat were then sought to adorn motorised vehicles. There are also influences from domestic traditions of decorating what is valued, from shrines to brides, which has come to be transferred to modern possessions like ghetto blasters. As new materials have arrived in the market – radium colours, reflective tape, LCD light displays, and even the woodcarving and inlay crafts of Kashmir – they have found their way into truck décor. Even poetry, the pastime of Pakistani people, has been incorporated to reflect personal philosophies. The exterior and interior of the trucks have became moving palaces for the new “kings of the road”; an ongoing competitive spirit of embellishment developing into what is now a sophisticated art form.

A new style of vehicle decorating came about in the 1970s with the advent of city buses able to service flexible routes to meet the needs of fast growing urban centres. Unlike other countries where vehicles are decorated mostly by spray-painting images on the surface, the structures of Pakistani trucks and now buses are actually designed with decoration in mind. Trucks originally had larger panels made of wood, and so were suited to decoration with painted images, while buses of steel with more contours prompted the development of a decorative style of repousse stainless steel, coloured acrylic plastic and reflective tape filigree with its own distinctive language.

Owners of the W-11 route buses, mostly Muhajirs, Punjabis or migrants from India at Partition, spend an enormous amount on decoration, motivated in part by rivalry with one another, and by the love of colour, splendour and display. Yet vehicle decoration has no economic benefit. A key to understanding why so much effort and expense goes into decoration, in spite of the obvious poverty faced by these very people, may lie in the aesthetics of shrines and the role of superstition in the spiritual temperament of Pakistani people. A commonly held belief is that unless the source of one’s livelihood is properly honoured, it will not prosper. Amongst profane imagery and poetry, the decoration of the buses incorporates prayers, cloths from shrines tied to rails and every bus has a child’s shoe hidden in its decoration for good luck! The presence of these spectacularly decorated buses in otherwise seemingly drab and messy roads is indeed a charming enigma.

The exuberant display of the vehicle, the energy of the conductor and the beat of resonating music all conspire to move people aboard the W-11. Perhaps it is a claim for the human spirit to not be overlooked in an increasingly homogenising and homogenised world. A spirit of generosity and lust for life is transported by the W-11 as it temporarily encircles the city of Melbourne, as if to radiate an aura of honour and goodwill outward and onward. The Karachi decorators have built a vehicle reminding us of our simple human capacity to move, and be moved.

Mick Douglas & Durriya Kazi, 2006

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