Dhaka’s cycle rickshaw art, a disappearing legacy

Raul Dias | Updated on December 04, 2019

Pull factor: Over 50,000 cycle rickshaws ply the streets of Dhaka, each of them dressed to the nines   -  ISTOCK.COM

While Dhaka’s cycle rickshaws are head-turners with their kitschy hand-painted art, their creators are in danger of fading away in a changing Bangladesh

As a young boy growing up in a tiny village close to the city of Sylhet in eastern Bangladesh, Bulbul hated his name so much that he started to refer to himself simply as “BB” once he hit puberty. Named after one of South Asia’s favourite singing birds of the passerine family that are closely related to nightingales, Bulbul says friends teased him mercilessly for having a “feminine name”.

Today, the 54-year-old’s name is his USP. He proudly brandishes it — not just in sparkly silver Roman letters, but also pictorially as a flock of neon green bulbuls painted on the back of his cycle rickshaw while he ferries locals and travellers to and fro on Dhaka’s traffic-infested roads.

I’m in the Bangladeshi capital for three days to visit friends, when I chance upon Bulbul at a busy intersection in the city’s northern neighbourhood of Gulshan. I don’t know Bengali, but in his broken English Bulbul is more than happy to introduce me to his colourful world of cycle rickshaw art as we ride downtown towards Old Dhaka.

With over a million three-wheeled pedicabs plying its streets, Bangladesh is often called the ‘cycle rickshaw capital of the world’. More than half of these are in Dhaka. And each of them, like Bulbul’s kitschy aviary, is dressed to the nines with a flexible, accordion-like hood festooned with buntings, tinsel strips on handlebars and vinyl panels with intricate appliqué work on the passenger seat’s backrest.

It’s the rear of the chassis, however, that’s bursting with artistry on the 2x4 ft metallic rectangle below the hood. There’s everything from gaudy-coloured depictions of flora — particularly Bangladesh’s national flower, the shapla (water lily) — to hand-painted 2D portraits of rosy-cheeked local film stars.

Some rickshaws have paintings of rural scenery or buildings such as the Louis Kahn-designed national parliament house Jatiya Sangsad Bhabhan, and the Tara Mosjid. The latter, a star-spangled mosque in the ‘Armanitola’ or Armenian quarter of old Dhaka, also graces one side of a 10-taka note.


Ready to roll: Bangladesh’s cycle rickshaw art scene traces its beginnings to the mid-1950s   -  ISTOCK.COM


I soon find myself facing a dilapidated storefront in Old Dhaka, where the mood inside is nothing short of frantic. Insisting that I see how the rickshaw art takes shape, Bulbul has brought me to a street that’s entirely given over to this craft. Bangsal Street aka Rickshaw Street has around a dozen workshops that specialise in everything from painting and decorating to upholstering cycle rickshaws.

Breathing in air thick with strong odours of paint, vinyl and adhesive, I step into Mesbahuddin Hafiz’s shop, where I can see finishing touches being applied to a cycle rickshaw. The sexagenarian Hafiz tells me his late father started the business in the mid-1950s when the whole cycle rickshaw art scene started to take form in Dhaka.

“Though my father started off painting more simplistic scenes like sunsets and beaches, a decade later his work started to take on a more political tone,” says Hafiz, referring to Bangladesh’s independence struggle before liberation from Pakistan in 1971. Propagandist motifs depicting scenes of uprising and civil unrest started to creep into cycle rickshaw art, reflecting the zeitgeist.

After decades in this creative profession, it’s no less of a struggle for independence and livelihood for artisans such as Hafiz. Facing stiff competition from cheaper digital art and screen printing, work for him has almost dried up, he tells me. “Twenty years ago, I used to work on at least five to six rickshaws a month. Today, I’ll be lucky if I even get a single rickshaw,” laments Hafiz. He mentions yet another factor that’s impacting his business --- in a bid to decongest the streets of Dhaka, the local authorities have stopped issuing new rickshaw permits.

But all hope may not be lost, yet. A Dhaka startup called Biskut Factory, helmed by artist Biskut Abir, is attempting to preserve and promote rickshaw art by having it painted on everything from apparel and accessories to household items such as kettles and mugs. It is bringing it into the mainstream via the annual Dhaka Art Summit and other platforms.

The psychedelic bulbuls, and their creators in this corner of the world will keep soaring.

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • There are daily direct flights linking Dhaka with New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Within Dhaka, one can take a taxi, auto rickshaw (locally called “baby taxi”), cycle rickshaw or public bus. Indian visitors need a visa, which is issued free of charge at the Bangladeshi High Commission in New Delhi
  • Stay
  • Dhaka offers accommodation to suit most budgets. The luxurious InterContinental Dhaka (₹11,053 for two with breakfast; ihg.com) is in the heart of the city. The three-star Asia Hotel (₹4,177 for two with breakfast; asiahotel.com.bd) is close to the historic Curzon Hall
  • Tip
  • To immerse yourself truly into the ethos of Dhaka, cruise down its arterial Buriganga River in a small wooden boat, or kosha, often captained by singing boatmen (150 taka, or ₹127 per hour; Sadarghat Boat Terminal in South Dhaka)

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Published on December 04, 2019

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