Takka's Technicolour Rickshaws
In Old Dhaka, I explore the dying art of Rickshaw painting workshops which still hand paint and assemble rickshaw bodies in Bangladesh. With modern fast print patterns available, a whole tradition of rickshaw artistry is fading. Takka's workshop is one of the few remaining workshops which maintains the original processes behind creating the beautiful colourful works on one of the country's most beloved forms of transport.
The labyrinthine streets of Old Dhaka echo with the ringing of rickshaw bells navigating their way through the network of ancient roads dating back to the Mughal Empire. Old Dhaka is the humble birthplace of many rickshaws in the area. These uncomfortable, yet eye-catching technicoloured bikes, wheel passengers across the sprawling city at any time, whatever the weather, and are as old as the streets themselves. Equipped with tremendous stamina as well as a quick wit, most rickshaw drivers navigate their way through everything on the road from buses driving head on, to goats and cows crossing at random intervals. Popular with everyone in the city, from businessmen to tourists, the rickshaw provides an alternative way of transport whenever buses or cars break down and can sometimes navigate their way through traffic faster than either of them.
The drivers, or 'Rikshawallahs', can also often be a source of entertainment telling stories of everything they have seen on the roads of Dhaka, which being one of the most densely populated spaces on the planet, provides for countless numbers of tales. Rickshaws are a common sight amongst the traffic laden roads of the city yet few question the creative processes and history behind the heavily ornate carriages upon which they ride.
In Old Dhaka lies Sarder Street, home to the workshop of Tekka Meaker [Takka Mistree] who paints and assembles rickshaws alongside his apprentices. Whilst the street is filled with workshops welding metal frames together for the bike parts, there are few workshops which focus on the decorative aspect as it is a highly skilled profession. After some conversation, Takka pointed to newspaper clippings pasted on the walls of his workshop telling me of how he had painted the rickshaws on which famous cricket players had sat and posed for photographs on during the ICC Cricket World Cup 2014. The workshop walls are adorned with plaques containing paintings from scenes of Bollywood, mythical stories, religious scenes, local landmarks, and animals, ready to be placed on the wooden or metal frames of the rickshaw carriages. As well as plaques, rickshaw hoods and intricately patterned carriages line the walls. The street is reserved solely for the making of rickshaw parts and little else, creating a unique atmosphere in contrast to the usual hustle and bustle of the city.
The decorative paintings conjure up an urban fantasy containing the present, past, and future dreams of the country, mixing mythical stories and contemporary events together creating a unique patchwork of images that do not necessarily have a particular meaning when combined but allows room for individual expression and interpretation. The vivid scenes enable a momentary escape from the roar of city life and dust that clings to the air from the movement of people and vehicles, to a world in which tigers sit around tea tables and Bollywood stars from favourite movies are present.
Painting acrylic on the tin plates makes the colours hard to mix, hence the heavy usage of primary colours and a lack of shading detail resulting in images which have a distinctively recognisable yet individual style to them. Much of the painting is done by hand on separate pieces that are then joined together on the wooden or metal bodies of the bikes and carriages. The number of rickshaws produced in the workshop has declined over the years due to an increase in other methods of transport. The overall length of time to decorate and assemble a body is around three days.
Takka's workshop produces these detailed pieces of art to be used on rickshaws made in his workshop but also sells them to other workshops in the area. Usually each piece of artwork is signed if it has been painted and so a rickshaw can sometimes consist of a collection of artists' work making each rickshaw art truly unique. Artwork can vary from region to region within the country based on its particular history, culture or landmarks. In Sylhet for example, a region known for its religiosity, many rickshaws are decorated with bright colours without the depiction of animals or Bollywood scenes partly to shun away from the materialism and excess often associated with it.
With the popularity and ease of screen printing, screen printed movie plates are dominating the market reducing the role of the traditional painters. A reduction of themes for images has occurred as a consequence from the mechanised process which print the same image sets repeatedly taking away from the originality and regional distinction the Rickshaw artworks once embodied. Nonetheless, Takka remains proud of his artworks and those of his apprentices, and the coverage of his work during the ICC world cup confirms his belief that there are still people who value the skill. Bangladesh remains as dependent as ever on rickshaws alongside the artists who contribute their skill into decorating them. Bangladesh will always be synonymous with this colourful and unique mode of transport that is unchanged and as ancient as the streets of Old Dhaka itself.