In Bangladesh rickshaws are mobile pieces of art that brighten up the congested city streets in a swirl of colours and stories. Today this uniquely Bangladeshi art form, and the lives of its artists, is in the midst of a dramatic transformation.

The Rickshaw Artists’ Tale

  Bangladesh
  13 min read

Colour on the streets

The streets of Dhaka were awash with locals decked out in festive red and white, the city abuzz with Bengali New Year celebrations. But even amidst all the colour and joviality something else stood out: the rickshaws.

In the world’s most densely populated city the three wheeled rickshaws are coloured more brightly than a rainbow, making these primitive people carriers impossible to ignore on the city’s cripplingly congested streets. It’s true cycle rickshaws are a common sight across Asia but in the colour and creativity stakes, Bangladesh wins hands down. It was the highly decorated, tin rectangle at the back of the rickshaws that grabbed our attention most. Here a striking key visual takes pride of place: it can be anything from movie stars, to a fable, to an expression of religious devotion. We were swept up in the swirl of colours and stories painted onto the rickshaws and set out to find out more about the artists behind this uniquely Bangladeshi art form and why their craft is under threat.

Painting culture

Rickshaws first came into use in Bangladesh around the 1940s when they were primarily, undecorated, functional vehicles. A couple of decades later decoration had become more common and depictions of popular movies stars’ faces started to feature on rickshaw back panels. These illustrations evolved into political and patriotic messages during the Independence Movement of the 1970s and were sometimes used, unsuccessfully, to promote social messages. Skip forward to today and an array of different art appears on rickshaw backboards, the theme varying according to where in the country you are. For example in Dhaka depictions of garishly coloured movie stars are favoured, while the illustrations on backboards in Srimangal have a more religious aesthetic. Rickshaws display snapshots of Bangladeshi life, providing a space on which to express something about popular culture or people’s beliefs and aspirations. Bright colours are used not only for their eye-catching qualities but also for their durability on polluted city streets.

But the main point of all this colourful eye-candy was, and still is, to attract customers to hire the rickshaw.

A monument to the past

After much searching and multiple false leads we arrive at a rickshaw garage in Rajshahi, a humid and dusty town in North West Bangladesh. Outside a few men are busy fiddling with broken bike parts and hammering pieces of metal.

A former rickshaw artist stands outside his workshop in Rajshahi.
A former rickshaw artist outside his workshop in Rajshahi.
Floral detailing on a rickshaw seat
Floral illustrations on the footwell of a cycle rickshaw.

The owner of the garage welcomes us into the cool of his workshop. Murals adorn the walls: depictions of the familiar face of the “father of the nation” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose image is everywhere in Bangladesh, and of Mecca. But these paintings are mere reminders of our host’s talent and craft, he actually stopped working as a rickshaw artist some 10 years ago. A self-taught artist, he painted rickshaws for 26 years, but then the work dried up and he was forced to give up painting and take over the running of his family’s rickshaw garage instead.

A rickshaw mechanic outside a workshop in Rajshahi.
A rickshaw mechanic at work outside the workshop in Rajshahi.

He suggests a couple of reasons for the end to his career as a rickshaw artist; the rise in digitally printed artwork, whose price he can’t compete with, and the local Government in Rajshahi no longer issuing rickshaw permits. Congested streets are a problem in many Bangladeshi cities and Rajshahi’s authorities are trying to tackle this by preventing new rickshaws getting on the roads. Rickshaws often bear the brunt of the blame for Bangladesh’s painfully slow moving traffic and many consider them a barrier to the country’s development.

A rickshaw puller stands with his rickshaw decorated with planes and trains.
A rickshaw puller with his rickshaw in Khulna, where planes and trains are the decorative order of the day.

The cluttered shelves of unused paint pots and the dilapidated rickshaw in one corner of the workshop take on a more sombre feel after we’ve heard the former artist’s story. In fact, the whole room feels like a monument to the past, to his former career.

From hand-painted to computer printed

In the verdant tea growing town of Srimangal, in the North East of the country, we end up at a first floor workshop off one of the city’s main streets. On the wall opposite the entrance, a melancholy black and white mural immediately catches our attention, it depicts victims of the famine that ravaged Bangladesh in 1974. The artists we visit tend to decorate their workspaces with artwork to please themselves, they spend their days painting what others request but the walls of their workshops and studios reflect their personal tastes. Bulbul, whose workshop we are in, comes over and greets us with a firm handshake.

Bulbul, a former rickshaw artist in his studio in Srimangal in front of a mural on his wall
Bulbul, a former rickshaw artist in his studio in Srimangal.
Bulbul, the painter, holds one of the books he uses to check his spelling and grammar
Bulbul uses books to help ensure his spelling and grammar is correct.

He no longer paints rickshaws either, the last time he did was 14 years ago. Nowadays his trade is sign-painting, he explains, while showing us the books he uses to double check his spelling and grammar. This kind of work seems primitive for a talented artist but signs are often still hand-painted in Bangladesh so the work is available. Bulbul thinks that mass produced artwork is to blame for the sharp downturn in demand for traditional rickshaw art. Large companies now produce backplate designs in bulk, at half the price charged by rickshaw artists. Any kind of creativity or artistic flare is quashed because the designs are standardised templates which cannot be customised. Bulbul believes that everything in his industry is headed towards digitisation and expresses hopes of setting up a digital print studio in the future.

We start to wonder if there are any working artists left. Maybe we’ve arrived 10 years too late.

Those who paint and those who leave

Crowded and smoggy Chittagong, in South East Bangladesh, is the country’s second largest city and home to its biggest port. There are a lot of rickshaws in this town and many of them are adorned with a water lily illustration, the water lily being Bangladesh’s national flower. It was here that we picked up the rickshaw artist trail again.

Paint pots in a rickshaw artist's workshop
An acid pink illustration of movie stars on a rickshaw panel
Overhead shot of a rickshaw workshop in Bangaldesh

Following a tip from a local friend we arrive in a narrow covered arcade humming with the sound of sewing machines. Despite the blazing sun outside, only a small stream of sunlight light trickles onto the path that runs along the middle of the arcade. On either side there are small shops, no bigger than car garages, illuminated by fluorescent tube lights. It’s inside one of these that we see Bonjo painting.

Bonjo, a rickshaw artist, in his studio in Chittagong.
Bonjo, a rickshaw artist since 1969, based in Chittagong.

Bonjo’s small workspace is a mish-mash of rickshaw parts, paint pots and brushes and a sewing machine. The walls are daubed with streaks of different coloured paints, a testing board before he paints onto the metal plates . He trained as an artist in 1969, just before Bangladesh’s Independence and has had his own shop for 35 years.

Bonjo’s workload fluctuates from month to month, but when there is work he and his son work 12 hour days, seven days a week. These days his customers tend to request simple designs and the pair is currently finishing off a bulk order of water lily designs for 10 brand new rickshaws. Rickshaw pullers don’t tend to own their own rickshaws, instead fleets of rickshaws are often purchased by businessmen who will then rent them out.

A painter decorates parts of a rickshaw
A rickshaw artist at work in his studio in Chittagong.

Artists paint directly onto the metal backplate or the rickshaw body. First the artist will apply background colours, before gradually layering up the detail on top using enamel paints. With smooth and sure brushstrokes Bonjo’s waterlily illustrations start to take shape, he rests his free hand beneath his painting hand for stability and builds up shades of red, yellow and white.

Next door to Bonjo’s space is another workshop, in here a jovial group of men create the appliqué hoods and seat covers for the rickshaws. Stacks of highly decorative plastic and vinyl line the shelves around the workshop and the floorspace is cluttered with bags of trimmings and wooden rickshaw parts. Scattered in the remaining space, three or four young men work at treadle sewing machines, stitching together pieces of plastic with lightening speed.

WE WATCH, AS ON ONE SIDE OF THE WALL THE SEWERS WORK, FAST AND FURIOUS, WHILE ON THE OTHER SIDE THE ARTIST WORKS, SLOW AND STEADY.
A sewer in Chittagong sits at his sewing machine
A sewer in Chittagong creating the appliqué hoods for cycle rickshaws.
Sewing appliqué panels for cycle rickshaws in Bangladesh.
A sewer sews panels for a cycle rickshaw

Bonjo trained three students but none are working as rickshaw artists any more, there’s not enough work for them now, he explains. A few of the rickshaw artists he knows left Bangladesh to try their luck working in the Middle East, but Bonjo’s been in the game too long and prefers to stay put, despite the lack of work.

From tradition to tourism

Back in Dhaka, where this colourful odyssey began, we stand in front of a rickshaw workshop: a double fronted garage with a precarious mezzanine at the back. In the main space, mechanics, artists and sewers all toil away, spilling onto the street outside. On the righthand side of the workshop stands a brand new shiny rickshaw, complete with an acid pink movie star theme, ornately appliquéd hood, metal stud detailing, floral decorative seat cover and a set of handlebar streamers – for that added bit of flare.

A brand new, freshly painted rickshaw in a Dhaka workshop.
A brand new, freshly painted rickshaw in a Dhaka workshop.
A rickshaw artist paints final details onto a rickshaw
Putting the finishing touches to a rickshaw.

We’re meeting a rickshaw artist called Yousuf, his home/studio is on the same street. A little further down the lane, we push open an iron gate, stepping into a slender courtyard, it’s bright and airy, the walls are painted light green and foliage hangs from bamboo fencing overhead. Doors off either side lead into the residents’ homes, it’s a lively space, where children are playing and giggling. In a small corner, opposite his front door, Yousuf has set up a workspace, housing all the tools of his trade; easel, paints, brushes and canvases. Like the other artists we’d met, Yousuf’s workspace is adorned with his own paintings, pieces of work that might not make it onto a rickshaw but reflect his own artistic taste.

Yousuf, a Dhaka rickshaw artist, holds one of his paintings.
Yousuf, a Dhaka rickshaw artist, has started creating pieces aimed at tourists.

Yousuf paints expressive pictures of movie stars in luminous pinks and reds, vibrant wildlife scenes and idyllic depictions of village life. We’re not the first people to interview him, he’s gained a little fame through appearing on some other TV interviews about his craft. His father was a renowned rickshaw artist and taught Yousuf, and his six brothers, how to paint from a young age. When we meet, Yousuf’s young daughter, Asha, sits alongside him, watching and learning the craft. But rickshaw painting alone is not enough to sustain him and his family, so he’s found another niche, which provides an additional source of income and allows him to continue working as an artist. The tourist industry.

Yousuf in the studio space outside his home.
Yousuf in the studio space outside his home.

Tourists are drawn like magpies to the brightly coloured rickshaw designs, so Yousuf now paints pieces onto rexine panels, which are easily rolled up and transported home as souvenirs. He’s not the only artist who’s segued into tourist art, we came across a website where some of Dhaka’s most renowned rickshaw artists sell their wares at premium prices.

But tourism alone won’t sustain this industry, rickshaw art was created to appear on rickshaws, not on walls and without the rickshaw as its canvas this craft will cease to exist in its traditional form, instead morphing into some kind of curiosity.

ttt-rickshaw-artists-tale_33
ttt-rickshaw-artists-tale_15
ttt-rickshaw-artists-tale_14

The future for rickshaw art

The landscape of rickshaw art is in the midst of a dramatic transformation, one which makes it unlikely it will continue in its traditional form – artists hand-painting customised designs to appear on rickshaws – for much longer. Modernisation, in the form of upgrades to roads and city infrastructure aims to push rickshaws off the roads, while the digitisation and mass production of artwork is leaving traditional rickshaw artists out of work, as customers lack the appetite to pay a premium for customised work. While it’s possible that rickshaw art could continue in some shape or form with the help of tourism, we’re left thinking that the artists behind this colourful craft are a dying breed.

Discover more of the rickshaw artists’ work

0