Art and poetry in motion

Exhibition shows how Nepal’s public transport is also a vehicle for creative expression

Photo: SRAVASTI GHOSH DASTIDAR

Buddha Was Born in Nepal

आमा बुबाको आशीर्वाद

उडायो कान्छी तिम्रो पछ्यौरी मेरो रफ्तारले

पैसा बिनाको ATM र जब बिनाको KTM उस्तै रहेछ

Don’t Tich Your Father’s How 2 Drive

These colourful messages behind long-haul trucks and other public transport on Nepal's roads represent art and literature in motion, an outlet for their drivers for creative expression and social commentary. 

Tipper trucks and buses might advise fellow road users to ‘Horn Please’, or ‘Speed Control’ while others sport bumper art that proclaim them to be ‘Road King’. 

Examples of truck art are on exhibit at the ‘Sawari Kathaharu’ exhibition at Siddhartha Art Gallery with photographs by writer-photographer Sravasti Ghosh Dastidar, London-based journalist Abhushan Gautam, and digital illustrations by graphic designer and artist Shubha Joshi. 

Art and poetry in motion NT
(From left to right) Writer/photographer Sravasti Ghosh Dastidar, Siddhartha Art Gallery curator Sangeeta Thapa, curatorial assistant Urza Acharya, and illustrator Shubha Joshi. Photo: NAVARAJ DANGOL

The photographs showcase attempts by drivers and owners to breathe life and personality into the vehicles they spend so much of their lives on. But they also reflect the Nepali zeitgeist.

The ‘Love and Death’ and ‘Philosophy’ series feature images of vehicle literature, verses, messages, and commentary that are in turn humorous and profound. 

The back of one truck photographed by Gautam seems to be inspired by Nepal’s high highway accident rate: ‘Donate blood but not on the road’. A jeep carrying banana leaves has a flirty message of unrequited underneath a poignant statement on youth migration. 

One of Gautam’s photographs is of the back of a silver microbus ‘No Speed No Ulti’, possibly a branding exercise to attract passenger prone to car sickness.

Art and poetry in motion NT
Photos: SRAVASTI GHOSH DASTIDAR

Other photographs from Ghosh Dastidar show vehicles embellished with bright and gaudy artwork ranging from deer walking serenely along a green field, to pop culture’s beloved supervillain The Joker peering menacingly at passersby from the back door of a truck. 

A lot of the art depict gods from the Hindu pantheon, but there are also images of the Buddha, King Birendra’s family, international football players, Bollywood actors, and of late, Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah in shades.

“I like to find beauty in everything, and everyone,” said Ghosh Dastidar at the opening of the exhibition on Monday. “Amidst all the dust and clutter of the roads and workshops, I tried to concentrate on the colours and figures painted, painstakingly, onto lacklustre metal bodies.” 

Ghosh Dastidar has also documented work that goes on behind the scenes,  with photographs of the materials involved as well as audio testimonies of artists who meticulously render images and text onto the bodies of vehicles. Gautam has similarly been documenting ‘Sawari Sahitya’ on his Instagram Account Literature on Wheels since 2013, taking photographs of vehicles featuring memorable quotes. 

Art and poetry in motion NT

Artist Shubha Joshi for her part has created vibrant digital illustrations of some of the more witty and notable examples of vehicle literature, and has tried to undercut masculine narratives with feminine takes in some of her work.

One such illustration includes a lady in traditional garb riding a motorcycle with a man holding onto her shoulders behind her which says, ‘‘कान्छा Love मा धोका खानु भन्दा आउ, मेरो बाइक पछाडी बसेर KTM को धुलो खाउ’. (Kanchha, rather than be betrayed in love, come ride pillion in my bike and bite Kathmandu’s dust)

“Some of the messages were quite male-centric, so Shubha turned them around,” explained Sangeeta Thapa, curator of the Siddhartha Art Gallery. 

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For Joshi it has been challenging to turn the flashy, over-the-top graphics illustrating truck literature into digital art.

“While travelling through micros, tempos and bus rides, I had often observed truck literature, but working on this project made me see them in a new light,” said Joshi. “Beyond the act of creation, what truly resonated with me was the ethos of the truck art itself, its spirit of fun, freedom and taking life in its stride.” 

The exhibition also includes a short documentary titled Sawari Sahitya made by Urza Acharya, Julin Rajbhandari and Sejol Pradhanang which has interviews with drivers, aspiring drivers and workshop staff.

The exhibition also has an interactive puzzle which visitors can put together to form their own truck literature. Some have left their own poetry, like: ‘तिम्रो ढाकाटोपी भरी हनिमुन मनाउला,’  and ‘धोका खानेलाई Bike को रफ्तारले पोखरामा’. 

Art and poetry in motion NT
Photo: NAVARAJ DANGOL

“Many of us look at this kind of art condescendingly but to the truck drivers, the truck owners or the artists, this is their livelihood, the trucks are their homes,” said Ghosh Dastidar.

Indeed, angry travellers stuck on gridlocked highways may not find funny a painting of Lord Shiva smoking pot on the back of a truck, but for the drivers the truck is their canvas, their workplace,  and a place of worship. 

Besides being their means of livelihood, the back of a bus is also a blank page for poetry and socio-political reflection.

Sawari Kathaharu 

11AM-5PM (Sunday to Friday)

12PM-5PM (Saturday)

Till 27 May

Siddhartha Art Gallery, Baber Mahal Revisited

Shristi Karki

writer

Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.

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