People & Society One Hour With

Three-wheeled canvases: a Hazara artist’s rickshaw art

Updated 18 Aug, 2016 02:37pm
Artist Muhammad Musa in his shop | Photos by author
Artist Muhammad Musa in his shop | Photos by author

The shop is a refuge for shadows that cannot exist in the sun-scorched street outside. It is a brick and mortar metaphor for Musa, the Hazara painter, whose community cannot be without the safety of the cloistered Hazara Town neighbourhood — however fragile that security may be.

The shadows cling to the surfaces of things, of paint bottles, brushes, the canvas with an unfinished equine portrait, accentuating the horse’s tawny coat with a dusky texture. And in turn, their murky presence is deepened by the blazing sunlight outside. Look in from the street and the shop’s gloomy interior delivers a sense of calm, of a cool relief to the eye seared by the sun, brought closer by the altitude of Quetta – 5,500 feet above sea level. Look out and the world is an explosion of light, the lingering, blinding image of a flash on the retina.

Photo by Aurganzaib Khan
Photo by Aurganzaib Khan

Inside, the dust from the street mingles with the smell of turpentine, a faint attendance in the air that is both dry and oily. It hangs in the still air like the floating spirit of inanimate figures on easel or framed, shaped out of an animated imagination. If it had a form, it would be the glistening lonesome peacock in the moonlight on a round metal plate that Muhammad Musa has just painted, already smooth and dry to touch, faintly redolent of oil. If it had a character, it would be of patriarchs shaped out of legends from Old Testament, of Daniel with a tame lion. Or more accurately a likeness of Hazrat Ali with a leonine companion, suggesting imagery consecrating Sher-e-Khuda, the Haider that is Ali, given that Musa the painter is a Hazara.

If it could have a colour, the odour that permeates the shop’s air would be green — the shade of faith - like the background of the painting in question.

But beyond the occasional and the incidental, nothing about Musa’s work or workshop is religious. If anything, Musa is a fabulist, an illustrator of myths, a painter of surreal, dystopian landscapes. Of fantastical beings in a world and time turned unreal. In his world, muscled warriors and voluptuous queens lead armies of swordsmen and sorcerers across a crimson futuristic expanse where myth coexist with machines — an inverted afterworld where civilisation has regressed into barbarism amid dark silhouettes of corroded architecture from a dysfunctional industrial past looming like ghosts against the skyline.

In the world of Musa, the Boris Vallejo of Hazara Town, it is quite plausible to have a strapping, brawny barbarian with a tattered vest and a tattooed arm employing the dagger to open a bottle of champagne just as dexterously as burying it into the maw of a fire-spitting dragon.

And all this to decorate a rickshaw, a bicycle plying the dusty streets of Quetta.

Also read: The artists of Swat

Musa’s art is all about transporting the humble means of transport into something singular, a personal statement of the driver’s aesthetic – much like truck art in its obsession with adorning the vehicle but far too subtle and refined. Instead of the gaudy artistry that gives a truck the semblance of a rural bride, this aesthetic insists on fine art.

“Hazaras are interested in art and football but not everyone makes it to the National College of Arts so they give up painting for computers,” says Musa, his clothes splattered with paint. Unlike his father Ali Jan, an artist and auto-mechanic whose name the shop bears, Musa is less of a mistri and more of an art maestro to the rickshaw owners of Hazara Town. Sputtering three-wheeled canvasses bearing Musa’s or his father’s signature – a dragon-slaying knight or the elegant pop-diva of Shah’s Iran, Madame Googoosh — their rickshaws rattle through the streets of a sprawling neighbourhood reduced to a jittery, sheltered borough for its 70,000 inhabitants, most of them Hazaras, by brutal sectarian violence on the western edge of Quetta.

“I feel safe here even though I would have more clients if I worked out in the city, in the bazaar,” says Musa in a manner tentative, as if not sure, but needing that promise of safety to carry on.

Musa’s heart is in fantasy art
Musa’s heart is in fantasy art

In the 1980s, Musa’s father Ali Jan went to Karachi to work with and learn rickshaw art from a certain Lateef Ustaad with a workshop near the KMC Ground. “He’s old and has given up the craft now, with his brother Shafiq taking over, who is not as good,” says Musa of the master who taught his father.

Ali Jan brought the rickshaw and art to Hazara Town at a time when it was a small settlement for the mainly refugee Hazaras from Afghanistan, different from Mariabad and Alamdar Road, the original Hazara neighbourhoods of Quetta. “The rickshaws back then were from Italy with a metal plate at the back, ready for painting,” says Musa, who learned from his father, along with his two brothers who have given up the practice moving into other professions.

Now he rummages through a white chest of drawers, bringing out several picture albums of his work. Inside are glazed, plastic-coated photos of his paintings, mainly reproductions of American artists – a proud Indian chief with a feathered war-bonnet; an ill-fated tourist attacked by a pride of lions – he has made and sold over the years. He can render replicas of the Peruvian American Boris Valejo that are hard to tell apart from the master’s own oeuvre, suggesting Musa’s heart is in fantasy art.

Others here, like the paintings on the shop’s grey walls, are originals — a steam-engine dating back to 1701 with sinister spikes for a cow-catcher, a heavily decorated rickshaw at a clean and placid Bab-e-Khyber that is at odds with the actual monument in Khyber Agency heaving with cross-border traffic any given time. There is one of Syed Ibrar Hussain, the celebrated Hazara boxer awarded a Sitara-e-Imtiaz and lost to a targeted sectarian attack in Quetta, who won Pakistan laurels in several Olympics games, and gold in the 1990 Asian games.

Aspiring young artists from the community come to Musa’s Spartan workshop to work on an assignment or a thesis before moving on to the hallowed halls of National College of Arts (NCA) or other coveted art schools. Once Musa would have liked that too. Five years ago, he went to learn to the Art Council at Manan Chowk where he was taken under the wing by “Sir Kaleem Khan – the best of oil painters who has no equal in Pakistan.” Confident that he could make it to the NCA, he took the admission test. The judges praised his work but selected those who painted “blocks and still life” even though “they did not have the best of teachers and their work wasn’t detailed”. When his teacher Fazil Musawi, whose watercolour technique is the touchstone for art-connoisseurs and aspiring artists alike, saw Musa’s work, he said the judges will select him “with their eyes close”. Since then Musa has given up on his dream of NCA.

Also read: Lahore Biennale — Art for the public

The metal plates he paints for rickshaws are placed in the hollow at the centre of a spare tyre mounted at the back. For the bicycle, the painting is done on a triangular metal plate affixed to the side over a wheel. A painting with a lot of detail and a fine finish like the lion-driven Roman chariot or the doomed Titanic on its last voyage cost up to 3000 rupees. But some settle for paintings less elaborate and expansive — usually youth with bicycles they treasure but means too meagre to afford a matching piece of art. Others are willing to pay more — like the die-hard devotees of political leaders, of whom there are many in Balochistan and of them many are the humble rickshaw drivers that carry their political affiliations on their sleeves and windscreens in the shape of stickers bearing party colours or an image of their leader. For a Baloch, it could be Akhtar Mengal. Hazaras prefer General Musa or Hussain Ali Yousafi, the slain leader of Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) or its current Chairman Abdul Khaliq Hazara.

“There are those who desire a painting but can’t pay for it so we make them something cheap without a landscape, say a fish or a butterfly, a heart or a candle,” says Musa. “It looks nice but little work goes into it and costs a thousand rupees less.”

Increasingly though, people are asking for imagery that is martial, a sign of the troubled times that the Hazaras find themselves in and their conscious or subliminal response to it.

Syed Ibrar Hussain, the celebrated Hazara boxer
Syed Ibrar Hussain, the celebrated Hazara boxer

“People prefer guns and swords now,” Musa reflects on the motifs that are becoming dominant in the art people commission. “We have a mar dahar culture” his words killed mid-sentence by the rising rumble of a tractor trundling past the shop, dragging a rattling, jumping water tanker behind, rushing to keep up with the increasing demand for water in Hazara Town, one of the thirstiest neighbourhoods in an increasingly parched Quetta.

As the tractor moves away into the distance, the noise dying by degrees, Musa picks up the thought again. “We have a culture of violence and people respond to it. They can’t be blamed if they like Rambo. What has the government done except giving people a mindset bent on violence.”

Musa and his father Ali are a dying breed – and that’s not taking into account the tragic irony of their threatened Hazara existence – keeping alive the moribund tradition of minicab painting that harks to the days of the original Italian rickshaw, the sky blue Vespa. He names the old masters in Quetta, Shafiq also known as Cheeko and Mohammad Shah, who long practiced the rickshaw art and earned a name for themselves like his father Ali Jan, before growing beards and giving up the craft. “Mohammad Shah said we don’t do idol worship” says Musa as he adds final touches to colour a rickshaw in the shadows of his workshop. The rickshaw is green, the standard colour for the three-wheeled minicab. Once done, Musa will paint a white snow wolf at the front, as the rickshaw owner commissioned.

“White on green!”, he nods approvingly of the driver’s aesthetics, perhaps not mindful that white is also the colour of minorities in Pakistan, pushed to a narrow strip at the corner of the flag by a green majority. Like this place where he lives and work, the Hazara Town in Quetta.