Who Was the First Truck Artist?

A few different authors have tried to identify a single person as first artist in Pakistan. Though there is little historical to answer this question, that has not been an obstacle to enterprising commentators.

Perhaps it was a Karachi-based painter named Ustad Elahi Baksh:

The art originated in the days of the Raj, when craftsmen decorated horse-drawn carriages for the aristocracy. Rana, citing historian Peter Grant, said the Kohistan Bus Company hired craftsman Ustad Elahi Bakhsh and his group to decorate their buses to attract passengers in the 1920s.

From Central Asia Online, December 12, 2011

This account, however, has limited credibility, not least of all because Peter Grant is not a historian, but a New Zealand-based artist and photographer.

Another theory also places the origin in Karachi but attributes the start to Haji Hussain:

Trucks, introduced in Karachi in the 1930s were initially simply painted with a protective coat of one colour with the name of the truck company stenciled in a single colour. After partition, in the 1950s trade and port activities increased in the city and the economic prosperity of the 1950s ushered in a demand for transportation of goods. Gradually the embellishment on trucks became elaborate, evolving into a popular art form, referred to as truck art. One of the claimants to the beginning s of truck decoration was Haji Hussain who came from a long line of kamaaangars (bow and arrow makers) turned court painters in Kutch, Gujarat. At partition he brought his skills in painting murals, decorative ceilings, and statuary to Karachi and added to the stenciled trucks images of birds, flower vases, a telephone with a woman’s hand picking up the receiver on which the company’s telephone number would be written.. His sons, grandsons, and former apprentices have carried on the tradition of [chitarkari] the art of making pictures, painting trucks, sign writing or decorating furniture and decorative light panels all over Pakistan.

From “The Semicotics of the Nation’s Icons by Naazish-Ullah” in Mazaar, Bazaar: Design & Visual Culture in Pakistan. In this account, Haji Husain’s role in popularlizing the art receives even greater emphasis.

This account is provocative as it suggests that Pakistani truck art was born in what is present-day India, not Pakistan. Like the first article, it also does not have any real historical evidence to support the claim. Both accounts highlight Karachi, where the first trucks in Pakistan were imported, and it is likely here that truck art has its origins in Pakistan.

In reality, truck decoration “is an entirely modern constellation of occupations in which market forces are the major determinant of its development” and not attributable to an individual. The painter is only one important contributor the overall decoration of the truck and complemented by the ironworking, studs, mirrors, embroidery, and tape embellishments that make a fully decorated Pakistani truck. Although certain artists have gained prominence, some of whom have been highlighted on this blog, none of them or their predecessors can take credit as being the first.