#LookoutFor: All India Permit
With this quarter's #LookoutFor, we want to rewind a little. In both of us at The Lookout Journal, there's a little bug that makes us dip out of ourselves and step into the tangible other-things that surround us, the little tick that has us looking out into the actual physical spaces outside of our bodies and minds.
For the both of us, forever fascinated by words and striking visuals, a big part of our childhoods was spent looking out of car windows during our long commutes to and from our homes, about 20 kilometers on the outskirts of the city we are from, to where we went to school, and where our friends lived. For stretches of this daily journey, we had lorries for company.
Lorries acquainted us with words and phrases that an 8-year-old wouldn't otherwise regularly read in her books. "Diesel" was one, from the diesel tank labelled in fancy painted cursive with flourishes. "Freight Carrier" was another. There was also the fierce-looking demon face to ward off the evil eye, a bright yellow or a dying and dried brown lemon hanging from somewhere near the bumpers, and a host of paintings of women in veils, or kids going to school, a turbaned and mustachioed man.
When we found All India Permit (AIP), an initiative by Farid Bawa, a senior designer at the advertising firm DDB Amsterdam, we were reminded of this connection with our childhoods— the one that somewhat sparks the curiosity that today informs The Lookout Journal.
Bawa grew up watching his grandfather, the owner of a fleet of 54 lorries, work with lorry drivers and the artists who carefully and with love and pride, dressed and decorated these vehicles that the everyday stuff of our daily lives commute in.
We spoke to Bawa about what AIP is doing to preserve and promote this now fast-fading prominence and importance of the lorry-art community in India, and how even the descendants of these artists are so passionate about their craft, despite its fading popularity.
TLJ: How hard is it to find these artists? Do you have a bank of artists you reach out to, or do they, through their network, get in touch with you?
FB: My grandfather had 54 trucks in his fleet. Truck artists used to come every once in a while and create beautiful artworks on these trucks. It was during one of these painting sessions, I befriended a couple of them.
I also went to various truck workshops where they built and painted trucks. I told them about the idea of All India Permit and got an excellent response. Most of the artists in the workshop had a second job as well, since truck art doesn't pay as well as it used to. They had no or minimal truck art projects those days. They instantly liked our idea and were excited to be a part of AIP.
TLJ: What sort of goods are transported in the finished trucks, would you know? What is the most common?
FB: Right from grains to steel, from medicines to fruits and vegetables, and from daily household items to luxury goods, trucks carry roughly 60% of all transported goods in India.
TLJ: Has a lorry/truck-driver shared his commute or travel stories with you. Or do you have your own such stories?
FB: I don't recall any particular story but during my interactions with truck drivers, I learned how they keep themselves entertained during their long journeys.
One driver from Punjab told me how he and his helper would sing chhand poetry ( a four-lined poem, or quatrain, popular in Norther India and Pakistan) to stay attentive and pass time. For example, the driver would first sing "chhand paraage aaiye jaaiye, chhand paraage baste" (a line from a Punjabi wedding folk song). Then, the helper must quickly think of a continual rhyme to this line like, "aate jaate chhote bade, sabko hamara namaste".
These traditional rhyming chhands keep the laughter going and the journey becomes less tiring.
TLJ: Considering the truck drivers spend a majority of their time on these trucks, what do they do to make it cozy/home-like for themselves. Would you know?
FB: Truck drivers decorate the interiors of their truck the way they decorate their homes. Through ornamental decorations in vibrant colors, paintings of their deities, photographs of their village, and family, especially their mother, these truck drivers never lose the special connection with their home.
TLJ: What's the funniest thing you’ve read on a truck recently.
FB: There was one that read, "Do not follow me, I’m Tsunami."
TLJ: How long does it take for an entire truck to be painted/decorated?
FB: Usually one to two days.
TLJ: Were there any instances when an artist reached out to you/AIP?
FB: I remember I received a mail from Rahul, from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. He told me about his 63-year-old father who has been in the truck art business for the past 35 years, and how valuable his art and experience could be to All India Permit.
It is so overwhelming to see how much passion the families of these artists have, even with the lack of work, to make trucks look beautiful.
TLJ: Is there a preference for colour and palette with most artists?
FB: The only criteria is visibility. Artists want the trucks to look so vibrant that they can be spotted and recognized from a distance, even at night. Hence, they usually prefer the use of bright colors, whether it's a painting or stylized lettering.
TLJ: How much is "HORN OK PLEASE" an indispensable part of planning each design? And why is it so popular?
FB: Horn OK Please is probably the oldest and the most-seen truck art signage in India. It is also the most mysterious one. Nobody really knows for sure where the phrase originated from, but everyone has their own interpretations.
Some say, quite literally, that when the roads were narrow, the sign was to request the vehicles behind the trucks to blow their horn in order to overtake. But others believe that OK in the middle is short for "On Kerosene"— a vestige from the time of Second World War, when kerosene trucks were prevalent.
Today, it's become a tradition for truck owners to use this phrase in each of their trucks. For the artists though, it is an opportunity to show their trippy artistic skills.
TLJ: Are there identifiable trends in truck art motifs? Do they speak of a larger sense of socio-cultural consciousness or are they mostly just whimsy?
FB: Every truck artwork is a unique emotion. The body of the truck is a canvas for artists to express their feelings towards their lover or family, pay respect to their deities, feel pride in a national symbol, or even show their fandom for their favourite Bollywood star.
Apart from this, truck art is also a cultural outlet for many artists. Take for example, the 'Buri Nazar' face motif sticking his tongue out, is painted as a charm to keep the evil eye away from their beloved truck.
TLJ: We see that you’re located in Nagpur and in Amsterdam. What is the response like to this art in Europe? Can you talk about that experience with reference to the experience in India?
FB: Well, in India, truck art is perpetually visible on the highway. It is everywhere.
But when we exhibited the same art in Europe, the unseen rawness of truck art and talent of the artists took everyone by surprise, and was received with tremendous excitement.
TLJ: What are the challenges you face while trying to sell this form of art?
FB: What All India Permit does is not just for the love for Indian truck art but also to help and support the talented truck artists. While we want to continue doing that, people sometimes find the artworks to be a tad expensive. But these earnings are a way to redeem these truck artists' talent and give them a better future.
TLJ: We read somewhere that truck drivers cut up strips of rubber mats and mount them on the wheels to make sure the tires look neat at all times. Do you know of any other inside secret you might want to share?
FB: Truck drivers want their trucks to stand out on the highway. For this, some replace the usual horn of their trucks with their favourite tunes too. From Bollywood tunes to the ever-popular Indian Naagin tune, truck drivers alwayskeep the highway entertaining.
Visit the AIP website for more information about them.