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HERITAGE: SAYING IT WITH FLOWERS

April 22, 2018

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A decorated wall under the bridge at the Jinnah International Airport
A decorated wall under the bridge at the Jinnah International Airport

It wasn’t that long ago that the rear door of a goods truck painted with a couple of bright green parakeets with ruby red beaks and perched atop a tree sprouting shocking pink flowers overlooking a valley with the bluest of rivers flowing, evoked remarks of “gaudy” or “cheap” art. The colours, it was said, were so bright they hurt the eyes!

But today, even high-end designer labels come up with expensive truck art T-shirts which the young find appealing. Such clothes are a must-have for their wardrobe, just like they want the bags and shoes sporting similar designs. And even at kiosks at a mall, you will come across a lady dauntlessly bargaining with a stall owner for a small blue-and-yellow teapot decorated in floral truck art design. The adamant shopkeeper won’t sell it for less than 1,000 rupees. “Truck art in Urdu is ‘phool patti’,” says Ali Salman Anchan, founder and creative director of Phool Patti, a social enterprise. “A truck driver bringing a new truck to the artists will say, ‘Phool patti ker do.’ That’s what this indigenous art genre of Pakistan has been referred to over the years,” he says.

A couple of flowery cows at the Consulate General of Switzerland, Karachi
A couple of flowery cows at the Consulate General of Switzerland, Karachi

So phool patti is arguably the most popular type of art coming out of Pakistan. “It first found appreciation abroad,” says Anchan. “The floral patterns, verses in calligraphy and vibrant colours taken for granted here immediately caught the attention of foreigners. Earlier, when not quite getting an answer as to what this kind of art was called, a foreigner just coined the name ‘truck art’ and so everyone calls it that now. But Phool Patti is its real name and that is what we call it abroad, too,” he says.

A Karachi-based group promoting ‘truck-art’ is taking the art form around the world

Phool Patti is now also a movement started by three very talented people of whom Anchan, as mentioned earlier too, is the founder and creative director, Haider Ali is the chief coordinating officer and head artist and Mohammad Mumtaz is the director. “My childhood friend Haider Ali comes from a family of phool patti artists and muralists. I was also introduced to the art through him,” says Anchan. “It used to bother me that there was no appreciation or recognition for phool patti in the country of its origin itself. I went to my friend Haider with an idea of how we could change this and promote this overlooked part of our country’s culture. Then Haider took my idea to his friend Mohammad Mumtaz. This was about 15 years ago,” he adds.

The classic Mercedes with a classic phool patti body in Munich, Germany
The classic Mercedes with a classic phool patti body in Munich, Germany

Anchan is behind all the ideas, concepts and branding of Phool Patti. Why stop at trucks? The trio have done phool patti on vehicles, as graffiti on walls and pillars of flyovers, on benches, furniture, cushion covers, curtains, clothes, handbags, luggage, footwear (chappals, khussas, converse shoes) and what not. “We wanted the world to know that we are not short of skill and ideas and that we are proud of our art,” says Anchan.

Decorating the entrance to an apartment building in Clifton, Karachi
Decorating the entrance to an apartment building in Clifton, Karachi

People come to us requesting phool patti wedding themes, corporate businesses want phool patti office themes, and restaurants and cafes want us to decorate their space. Even the new Islamabad airport is not without phool patti,” says the founder of the social enterprise.

The 190-feet long wall at the visa section of the US Consulate, Karachi, getting a new look
The 190-feet long wall at the visa section of the US Consulate, Karachi, getting a new look

The ideas they had not only earned the art of phool patti acclaim, they also turned them into entrepreneurs. “We have changed the lives of many a truck artist as the rise in demand for this art has given them more work. Before we came along to promote this art, it was considered as ‘cheap’ but it has now come to be recognised with things such as peace, love and cultural harmony,” the founder says.

The extended Pakistani rickshaw limousine in all its decorated glory stands at a trade exhibition in Belgium
The extended Pakistani rickshaw limousine in all its decorated glory stands at a trade exhibition in Belgium

Last year, Phool Patti project was acknowledged by Unesco, which featured the team as ‘creative entrepreneurs’ in their official publication. Also in 2017, they were presented with the SATHA Innovation Award 2017. They also have the honour of receiving one of the biggest awards for youth in Swat, the Peace Entrepreneur award, along with several more national and international awards and certificates.

Stepping into the world of phool patti
Stepping into the world of phool patti

“Now people come to us requesting phool patti wedding themes, corporate businesses want phool patti office themes, and restaurants and cafes want us to decorate their space. Even the new Islamabad airport is not without phool patti,” he adds.

There is the 190 feet long wall of the visa section of the US Consulate that has been decorated on the theme of US-Pakistan friendship. “Likewise, we worked and shared design ideas with the embassies of Germany, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Switzerland and many more here. We are also involved in projects across the US, Canada, Europe, China, Kazakhstan, Turkey and India,” Anchan shares.

A drive-through of a fast-food outlet off Abdul Sattar Edhi Avenue
A drive-through of a fast-food outlet off Abdul Sattar Edhi Avenue

The Phool Patti team is on tour yet again this month with a full roster of joint projects. They would be working with Germany’s Museum of East Asian Art, doing open space art with an art gallery in Austria, participating at a festival in Rhode Island, attending and participating in a Massachusetts University workshop and also decorating a bus there, among other things.

The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 22nd, 2018