Where Three Wheels Brighten the Road 

The streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, are shimmering, pulsing corridors of color. Blue and gold, pink and sapphire green, crimson red, deep purple, and radiant orange brighten the urban drab. The streets of Dhaka see parades of wildlife. Spotted deer and wild boar, peacocks and herons, crocodiles and the Bengal tiger thread their way through traffic-knotted streets. Barak, the winged horse of Bangladeshi mythology, has also been sighted. Dhaka’s streets are a red carpet for movie stars, both from the Bangladeshi film industry and neighboring Bollywood. As millions of the peasants have migrated to the city, the countryside has followed. Coconut palms, languid streams, and palm-roofed village huts dot the nation’s capital.

The display for this revolving panorama is Dhaka’s bicycle rickshaws. Graffiti artists in Los Angeles and cities around the world have turned urban facades into open-air forums for social and political expression. In Bangladesh, artists have made the rickshaw a vehicle for cultural expression, which can also embrace populist politics. “Visa to America” one artwork states, as a jumbo jet flies over the Statue of Liberty. Barack Obama graces the back panel of many rickshaws, at times alone, at times with his wife and daughters. Uniform company-owned taxis fill the streets of most large cities—yellow cabs in New York, black boxes in London, green Volkswagen Beetles in Brazil—but every Dhaka rickshaw is a snowflake, a singular work of art, and a ride in one cannot be replicated anywhere in the city.

Facts are ever elusive when exploring the culture of the East, and true to its origins, the history of the rickshaw has evaded clarity. Most historians agree that the first rickshaws appeared on the streets of Japan sometime in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but then facts and myths part ways. Some say that the rickshaw was the invention of Albert Tolman, a blacksmith in Worcester, Massachusetts, who was tasked with devising a simple but functional means of transportation for an American missionary. Others claim the rickshaw was the inspiration of Jonathan Gable, an American missionary in Japan who needed a simple and practical way to transport his invalid wife.

The bicycle rickshaw is believed to be the invention of American Betty Gordon. Traveling in China in 1869, she felt sorry for the puller of the hand-drawn rickshaw in which she was riding and persuaded him to tie it a bicycle. The puller became a pedaler, and the new contraption made much quicker time weaving through the crowded streets.

It was the bicycle rickshaw that found a place on the streets of Dhaka. Some claim the first rickshaws arrived from Calcutta in the 1930s, brought by European traders desperate for a quicker way to navigate the increasingly crowded city. Others say they appeared in Chittagong after hitting it big in Myanmar, or maybe Singapore, and that they came to Bangladesh as early as 1919, immediately after World War I.

Fuel shortages in the aftermath of World War II put a crimp on motor traffic, but novelty also boosted the rickshaw’s popularity. The pedal-driven rickshaw, or pedicab, as it is formally known, offered a change from the horse carriages and canal boats that the middle class had previously used to move around the city. To enhance the rickshaw’s appeal, artists began decorating their hoods and carriages, transforming them into rolling canvases. Since most of the artists were peasants who had moved to Dhaka to find work as painters of movie posters, many of the first images were rural scenes and movie stars.

Business interests quickly saw a business opportunity. A master-apprentice system of training quickly took hold of the industry. In Renaissance Italy and Holland’s Golden Age, aspiring sculptors and painters learned their craft in the workshops of Rembrandt and Michelangelo. Today, students of rickshaw painting usually learn the trade from an ustat, or master. Most often enamel paint is used, but traditional art has met the twenty-first century, with many designs created with the aid of computer technology. Sparkling appliqué is often added to make the rickshaws glitter, and brass vases decked with flowers adorn the carriage armrests.

Some rickshaw art bears the signature of the master of the workshop where it was created. Some rickshaw art is not signed at all. Some artists, averse to self-promotion, use pseudonyms. Some have taken their talent beyond the pedicab, selling works intended for canopies and carriages through the Internet. Nobo Kumar, Dherendra Chandra Das, Rafiqul Islam, and Tapan Chandra Das are rickshaw artists turned e-artists, as the popularity of their street works has found favor among e-buyers.

 

Riva Nizamuddin, a licensed tour guide, grew up in Dhaka and has seen the evolution of rickshaw art. “There are five workshops in the city whose work is highly respected,” he said, “and there is a competition every year to produce the highest quality art. Many of the artists will enter, and there is great pride in becoming a finalist, not to mention the winner.”

Mysteries have limits, even in the East. The region of Bangladesh, and even the neighborhood of Dhaka where a rickshaw was made can be pinned down through the artwork that graces its carriage and hood. Adhering to the Islamic practice of not portraying living things, devout Chittagong shuns the depiction of movie stars and wildlife. Its rickshaw artists often inscribe “Allah” to the canopy and may add a minaret or floral pattern.

With each neighborhood of Dhaka specializing in unique designs, artwork serves as an identity tag, corresponding to the letter-number codes on traditional license plates. But rickshaws must also bear license plates, and owners preen themselves on holding numbers of choice. Salamuddin Mahoud is rickshaw license-number collector extraordinaire. He is the owner of Dhaka rickshaws 1, 2, and 6.

Mysteries may surround the origin of the rickshaw, but there is little doubt it has become a victim of its own success. In 1941, only thirty-seven rickshaws rattled through the streets of Dhaka. Today there are half a million. Combined with the buses and automobiles, they make the streets virtually impassable many hours of the day. Some of Dhaka’s rickshaws are decorated with more modern means of transportation—spaceships and jumbo jets streaking above cities of the future.

The office of the travel agency where Riva works is nine kilometers from the residential neighborhood where he lives, and when office tasks require him to “commute,” the traffic can be insurmountable, he explains. “Most of the time it can take an hour at least, if I take a rickshaw; an hour and a half if I take a taxi, sometimes more. So, a lot of the time I just walk. It’s much faster.”

It’s also easier to watch the passing slide show.