According to historical sources, Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) of Japan used a rickshaw to visit his capital. The word rickshaw originated from the Japanese word 'jinrikisha,' which means human powered vehicle.
The first rickshaw in South Asia was introduced in Shimla, India around 1880 and in Kolkata in 1930. The three-wheeled vehicle started plying the streets of present day Bangladesh around this time.
In the 1950s, some rickshaw factories were set up in the country where the vehicles were painted as well.
In the beginning, the motif of most rickshaw paintings was based on the heroes and heroines of the film industry. The bright colours like red, green, yellow that we see on rickshaws today were also inspired by cinema banners.
In the 1970s, the Liberation War became the dominant theme of rickshaw paintings. From this decade onward, rickshaw paintings started gaining attention. Local culture, beliefs and aspirations began to make their way to the tin sheets adorning rickshaws.
Art historians have given rickshaw art a special place in the history of Bangladeshi visual art. However, due to the massive increase in the use of digital print, traditional rickshaw artists are under threat today.
It takes a week for a skilled artist to fully decorate a rickshaw. In contrast, digital prints now can be plastered on a rickshaw with the faces of popular movie stars in no time at a cost of only Tk50 to Tk100.
Six different professions have emerged centring the rickshaw industry including hood mistri, body mistri, slat artisans, artists, colour painters and fitting mistri.
The emergence of digital technology has kept only two paths open for the rickshaw artists – to adapt to the new situation or be lost in the mist of time.
Only a small number of people have still kept this profession alive. Many of them are applying their craft to objects other than rickshaws. They take orders from individuals or organisations and decorate different products with the motifs of rickshaw paintings.
Rafiqul Islam is one of them. We talked to him sitting in his house in the Narinda area of Old Dhaka.
Rhyme of the traditional rickshaw artist
Rafiqul has spent his whole life on rickshaw painting as he entered the profession when he was 15 years old to join his maternal uncle Alauddin Naz who was also a rickshaw painter.
One day, when Rafiqul was in the ninth-grade his uncle advised him to concentrate on rickshaw painting without wasting time as he was not paying much attention to his studies.
In the beginning, his uncle used to draw the designs and Rafiq used to colour them. After 2-3 months, Rafiq became skilled in this craft. Gradually he became a seasoned rickshaw painter in a very short time.
Rafiqul has received many awards in his long journey of 30-35 years as a rickshaw artist. His artworks have been exhibited in the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, Shilpakala Academy, National Museum etc. He also got invitations to exhibit his paintings in different countries.
In 2013, he took part in an exhibition in Japan where he was accompanied by another rickshaw painter Syed Ahmed Hossain as representatives of Bangladesh. The Japanese art lovers bought 15 paintings from Rafiqul and Syed Ahmed in the exhibition.
The following year, Rafiqul Islam was awarded as the best artist in rickshaw paintings category in an exibition organised by Karuparishad and the Bengal Foundation.
"Many of us think that only the paintings we see on the back of rickshaws are rickshaw art. But that is not the case. All the designs, decorations that can be found on the hood, seat, metal wheels and the handle of a rickshaw are part of it," said Rafiqul.
The paints used in rickshaws are different as unlike other mediums rickshaw artists do not use acrylic paints, but enamel paints. They mix turpentine and kerosene with the paint to make it usable. Rafiqul said that working with enamel paint requires a lot of patience.
However, they also use acrylic paint if the buyers demand it. The biggest disadvantage of using acrylic is that it cannot be used on clothes as the fabric becomes hard by absorbing it.
In the past, rickshaws were also decorated with golden fringe, sequin shawls or colourful veils, but nowadays there is a reluctance to do so.
Rafiqul said, "Rickshaw art has fallen so far from grace that rickshaw owners nowadays just write down their names and mobile numbers on the back of the vehicle."
He said that only 15 rickshaw painters including him are currently active including Rajkumar Das the oldest one still involved in this profession. The new generations are not interested in this work because rickshaw art is not getting evaluated properly.
There is no opportunity for formal education for rickshaw painters to develop their talents. However, there have been many government and non-government initiatives to keep this art genre alive. Various trainings are also being arranged for the interested youth.
Rafiqul Islam said that a few days ago, he and several other rickshaw artists had given training to some fine arts students on rickshaw art.
Explaining the importance of rickshaw art, he said, "If a bride wore only a dress and no jewellery on her wedding day, her outfit would be incomplete. Like this, if a rickshaw does not have any design and decoration, it will not look attractive."
"Rickshaw painting is a tradition. Although people in our country still do not appreciate this craft, foreigners do," he added.
So far two documentaries have been made about Rafiqul Islam. Filmmakers from Russia and Belgium came to capture Rafiqul's work on camera.
Nowadays, Rafiqul earns more using his skills on products other than rickshaws.
"A rickshaw painting can be sold for Tk2,000-Tk3,000 at an exhibition. But for the same painting on a rickshaw you would get only Tk500," he said.
Rafiqul Islam was sitting in the outer yard of his house and working attentively as there was no space in the house. Nowadays he also teaches his daughter the craft of rickshaw art in his spare time. His only desire now is that this tradition will be passed on to the next generation so that this art is not lost to the annals of time.
Rickshaw art for the masses
Many commercial organisations, NGOs and artist communities have come forward to save the endangered rickshaw art. As a result, this spectacular form of art has become a part of our lives – in tea cups, jewellery boxes, trays, necklaces or reading tables.
Protibha, a wing of Its Humanity Foundation, has been working with rickshaw painting since 2017. The organisation has been providing assistance to the country's marginal artisans so that they can get a platform to display their craftsmanship and can be benefited economically.
The artists who are involved with Protibha have already gained international recognition by depicting the motifs of rickshaw painting in ceramic, glass, steel and tin products.
"Everything is becoming digital gradually. Demand for rickshaw art has not decreased but as the price of these hand-painted products is a bit higher, people are buying products decorated with digital technology instead," said Maisha Lubaba, CEO of Protibha, "However, we have to make sure that the rickshaw artists are paid a fair amount of money for their work."
Protibha has its own website, it also has recently collaborated with shoe company La Mode to use the aesthetics of rickshaw paintings in designing shoes.
Fahmida Islam, founder and creative head of La Mode, said, "Rickshaw art is not commonly seen in shoe designs. So, we had to go through an experiment many times before finalising the design. By joining this initiative, we want to promote not only our own products, but also local rickshaw artists."
However, many people complain about the excessive price of products containing rickshaw art.
Afsana Sumi, proprietor of Bad Habit, an online clothing brand that works with rickshaw art, said, "Many people have received us with encouragement and many people have been disappointed due to the price of our tin ornaments. In fact, art is never cheap, or we do not want to bring it to market cheaply.
Art is the food of the human mind, and joy is priceless. So, we have to keep in mind everything from the artist's due wage and the benefit of our project while pricing. However, the fact is that we have come up with a unique idea for the buyers at a relatively low price," she said.
"The situation became more challenging due to the pandemic as the people panicked and the artists were isolated. Some have gone to their village home, others have taken up a different profession," she added.
However, efforts are being made to overcome the impacts of the pandemic by reuniting the original artists. Afsana Sumi said that Hanif Pappu, famous rickshaw painter of Chawkbazar, is going to work with Bad Habit.
The e-commerce site tukitaki.xyz has a large collection of various local home decorating products from trays to photo frames, tables, jute baskets, storage boxes, lamp shades, laptop covers etc. They have a section of products that are decorated with rickshaw art.
Rana, operations manager of the company, said, "Bangladeshi rickshaw art has gained a level of popularity abroad which is not the case in our own country. We wanted to promote these artists. That is why we have taken the initiative to popularise this art form in the country."
He said tukitaki.xyz will start exporting rickshaw art adorned products in different countries and in this way, the traditional art of the country will become known globally.