In this digital age, when there are no takers for phool patti in Pakistan, Inam Elahi is striving to keep truck art alive
Truck art, or Phool Patti (as it is termed locally), is a popular tradition in South Asia, chiefly Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, dating back to the 1920s when Bedford trucks began to be imported in the region. It involves decorating the vehicle — especially its wooden prows, fitted on top of the truck bed, forming a sort of a taj (or crown) — with ornate floral designs painted in bright, festive colours. Elements of design are borrowed profusely from local cultures, and often include the side profile of a woman, her head covered in scarf; the dome of a mosque; sunflower, peacocks, bug-eyed fish, and sunsets.
Over time, the art found many takers, even internationally, and was recognised as a genre/form. The number of its practitioners grew into thousands. They learnt the art from their seniors, and passed it on to the next generations. In Pakistan, truck/bus owners would spend hefty amounts on pimping out their rides. This was supposed to be a business investment, as people looking to hire a truck believed that if it appeared fancy and freshly painted, it was in better condition. Today, sadly, the business is on the decline, thanks to the influx of new-age transit buses. Correspondingly, digital technology is fast replacing the handiwork, leaving most artists to look for work elsewhere. Inam Elahi, 50, is one such artist.
A simple man, born into a conservative household in Chiniot, Elahi moved with his father, a mechanical engineer, to Taxila, circa 1990, after completing matriculation. It’s a city known for transporters and truckers. Elahi became attracted to the truck art he saw at a workshop, and started working there. “I learnt the basics of painting the chassis and the structure [of trucks],” he recalls, in an exclusive chat with TNS.
Soon he came to Lahore, and enrolled at a one-year diploma course at a Pak-German vocational institute, which “equipped me with the necessary knowledge and skills — from calligraphy to landscape and miniature.”
Eager to learn from the masters, Elahi went to Karachi and became an apprentice to Haider Ali, an internationally known truck artist who conducted open-air workshops. He worked there for about 14 years, and calls Ali “my ustaad!”
During his stay in Karachi, he also began to source work in different advertising agencies. In 2013, he visited Kolkata, India, where he attended the Durga Puja. “I had the honour to decorate an entire pindaal,” he says. “My art work was much appreciated.”
Today, he has shifted base to Lahore. At his modest residential place in Chungi Amar Sidhu, where he lives with his wife and children, he has set up a small work unit. His tools include long-handle mixing brushes for landscapes and portraits, pargaza paintbrushes for calligraphy, and round brushes for floral designs. He works with enamel paints and florescent powder colours. A coat of lacquer finishes the process.
Elahi is a fairly contented person. His only regret is the fact that truck art is vanishing. “There are no takers for phool patti on trucks in Pakistan,” he says, wistfully, “even though it’s still appreciated in other countries.”
According to him, there are “no truck workshops in Lahore now; only a few for rickshaws.” He also speaks of the method being changed from handiwork to digital. “We now do tape work on trucks. That is, the designs are prepared with the help of different computer softwares; their stickers are cut and pasted.”
He laments the fact that there are no public or private institutes teaching this as an art form. “The state and money elite should step forward and patronise it. They should understand that the message we’re giving through our designs and colours [on the trucks] is that of peace. We’re promoting the soft image of Pakistan!”
In his own capacity, Elahi is trying to keep the art alive by incorporating its motifs and designs in decorating/painting different household utensils and kitchenware. He has a day job with an NGO that promotes folk art, besides which he works for different fashion brands looking to utilise his skills and talent in ladies’ footwear and bags etc. He also conducts workshops for students.
One of his major works recently is a 100 ft high wall in Doctors’ Colony that he painted.
“The state and money elite should step forward and patronise it. They should understand that the message we’re giving through our designs and colours [on the trucks] is that of peace. We’re promoting the soft image of Pakistan!”