India’s trucks are works of art

Drive through India and you are sure to see this. These are India’s trucks. Most goods in India are transported by truck. And as India’s economy has grown trucks have
become central to how the country does business. But since they were introduced
to India in the 1940s, these trucks have become more than just commercial
transportation, they’ve become a canvas. This is truck art. We are all about these colors, about these
symbols, about these fun elements about our superstitions, about the evil eye, all
that stuff, and these things still matter to us. Truck art is an Indian art form. It’s
a sort of mash up of visual motifs from Indian culture, language, beliefs, and
history. This assortment of color schemes typefaces and symbols is on display all
over India’s highways making long drives through India a sort of artistic experience. They’re also very
personal. An expression of individual tastes, values, and beliefs of those who
spend thousands of hours behind the wheel. I went to India and drove all over
the country looking for these trucks. I wanted to understand what’s behind this
peculiar art form, what motivates these drivers and artists to turn something as
functional and mundane as freight trucks into a spectacle of culture and beauty. This truck. It first came to British
India during World War II. The original brand of the truck was Bedford and they
were originally designed to carry military cargo, but after the British
left they stuck around. This same basic design inspired many of the commercial trucks that are on the road today in India. There are now millions of these
trucks on Indian roads. For the millions of drivers who spend weeks away from
home, the truck is their workspace, their home, their place of worship as they
traverse India’s vast distances. You know that a truck guy is actually
spending a phenomenal amount of time on the road, so for him this has to be his
comfort zone, his kind of space where he is comfortable and he can probably just feel at peace. There’s a whole industry dedicated to
this art form. Painters, many from the northern state of
Punjab, have become experts at the style. Punjab is one of the main centers of truck art. They have a distinctive style that is hard for others to replicate. I think the calligraphy that they use, the way that they write, what they write,
and the fact that it has come so beautifully to become a 3d expression.
I’ve had a bunch of students try to replicate it. It’s not the easiest thing
to do. Over the years truck art has naturally
developed a set of unspoken style rules. First, you have color. Truck art almost always features bright, saturated colors. You rarely see darks or neutrals. They’ll be a red on a blue, there will be a yellow, that is a constant and if you look at the color palette that you usually use,
you’ll hardly find any black except for shadow and fall over, you know highlighting certain areas, so they seem like they’re elevated. Next, you’ve got the typeface or the font, which for prominent words is always put in English and rendered in this blocky 3d style, always hand-painted. Most of the messages you see on the back of these trucks are messages of safety. The most common counsel on the back of trucks admonishes drivers to honk their horn. For truckers whose massive rigs have high blind spots, it’s a good safety practice to honk your horn if you plan to pass a truck on the road but the car horn is also just how people communicate on the road here. On the roads and in the cities, the car horn is a part of the landscape. Yeah, they really take this horn mantra
really seriously here. Another important message you see is use dipper at night. The dipper is kind of the low beam headlights and because these trucks are
so up high the high beam headlights go straight into their eyes and make it
very dangerous. And finally you’ve got the iconography, the symbols that adorn these vehicles. Every truck is totally unique. A lot of the markings are
functional, so you’ll have the number of the truck, you’ll have different
identifiers for the business, but then the driver gets a say in the way it
looks and so because of that you get this medley of different styles. Some are
religious some are national, but a lot of these are symbols that the drivers just
think look cool. There’s this eagle I keep seeing on all of the trucks and
have asked a dozen of these truck drivers whose trucks on this eagle and
they can’t really tell me what it means or what it’s for they just know that the
other guy had it and it looks really cool. And so it’s good to remember that
while a lot of this has deep symbolism, some of it is just a cool trend and
people are expressing themselves with their truck in whatever way they want.
Some experts think that this eagle might represent speed and precision, but the
trucker’s in India’s northern state of Punjab think of this as a falcon
alluding to their religious history, A major theme here is religious symbolism. These
truck drivers will put religious symbols of different gods or gurus or important
figures and there’s a reason behind this. Truck driving is not a safe profession.
The truck drivers here are telling me that sometimes they drive 24 hours straight
without stopping. This is dangerous stuff and these religious symbols can give
them a sense of peace and safety while they’re away from their families and on
the road for days or weeks on end. They also have the cow and a calf,
which is about fertility, it’s about prosperity. These are symbols that will be there on almost all of them. A well decorated
truck can mean a sense of pride for these drivers. You see, it’s just like a
bride. They really put lots of flowers, balloons, the works, all of it.
Truck art can also represent a sense of community and common culture for these
workers, who are constantly moving around. Truck art is an amalgam of different
influences, old and new, religious and secular, meaningful and trendy. It’s an
unlikely fusion of economics and art, business and aesthetic. Trucks are the
core of India’s economy, but they’re also where some of the most beautiful art
lives and moves.


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