Painted Ladies – The Hidden Depths of Indian Truck Art

HHHOOOOOOOOOONK.” I jump out of my skin as a five tonne noisy kaleidoscope of colour roars out of a dust cloud on a hazy Mumbai highway. It looks like a monstrous rainbow painted rhino, but its an Indian truck, or Painted Lady – a breed of vehicle thought to have been born in Pakistan which has become not only a means of hauling goods across the Indian subcontinent, but a deeply-rooted cultural folk-art movement.

There is something both beautiful and scary about these giant clowns of the road: their sheer size juxtaposes the bright and whimsically crafted circus aesthetic. They are crowded creatures, emblazoned from bonnet to rear with lions, peacocks, flowers, good luck symbols, popular Hindi song lyrics, dangling charms, depictions of religious beliefs, sentimental values, and of course the crucial slogan – ‘Horn OK Please’.

 

Horn OK Please

Horn OK Please?

A young truck artist named Sadiq explains the functional value of this message: “the purpose is to prompt other drivers to honk when they overtake the truck, so the design should be eye-catching. The more stunning the design, the better the result.” This is because most trucks are missing side-view mirrors, and lane discipline is seldom observed, if there are lanes at all.

But why is there an ‘OK’ in the middle? There are various theories behind the origins of the phrase, but one of the most interesting dates back to the 1940s, when many trucks in India ran on Kerosene. These trucks would easily explode if hit, so the initials of ‘On Kerosene’ were stamped on the rear as a warning to drivers.

‘OK’ was also a name for a brand of economy detergent powder manufactured by the TATA group, who had a monopoly on India’s trucks earlier in the 20th century and still run a large percentage of them today. In order to market their product, they made full use of the transport medium by decorating the truck rear with ‘OK’, shaped like a lotus flower – the brand symbol.

 

 

Painted Lady, the Trucker’s Wife

So why do drivers take so much care and pride in decorating their trucks? A common reason is that their handicraft is a way of paying homage to the lady in their life who is left back at home whilst they’re on the road, adorning the vehicle with flowers and effeminate human features. In this way, it is more meaningful to the trucker than an outward show of customisation; it is a personification, and a display of devotion to his long distance love.

On one level, the trucking industry of India has played an instrumental role in shaping Indian trade and commerce for around a century. Today though, for many Indians, and for those who love India, this industrial, vernacular art form represents the anthropology, zest for life and burst of exuberant colour that culturally define this part of the world. 

Words by Alex Durham