Dhaka: A war of independence didn`t stop
him nor did two bouts of sectarian bloodshed and an Islamist
military government, which banned his work. Bangladesh`s
famous rickshaw artist R K Das kept on painting.
But the wily 75-year-old, whose masterful depictions
of Bollywood film stars in bright colours adorn tens of
thousands of rickshaws in his native Dhaka, has finally been
defeated: by the car.
"The golden age of rickshaw painting has passed," Das
told AFP at his small workshop in the historic old quarter of
the Bangladeshi capital.
"When Dhaka was a small city, everyone used a rickshaw
-- even a groom would use a rickshaw to ride to his bride`s
house. Then, I would work day and night painting rickshaws;
now, no one cares," he said with a sigh.
Rickshaws were first introduced in Bangladesh in the
1930s from Japan, where the three-wheeled vehicles were known
The idea of decorating the leg-powered contraptions
took off in Bangladesh in the 1950s with the tradition
following the simple yet colourful style then used by painters
producing movie billboards.
"There are rickshaws in other parts of South Asia but
nowhere are the vehicles so artistically decorated as in Dhaka
-- just as unique as painted trucks are to Pakistan," said
Abdus Sattar, an oriental art professor at Dhaka University.
"Decorating rickshaws was a way for drivers to compete
for business -- they wanted to make their vehicle as beautiful
as possible to attract as many clients as they could," said
"So we saw the birth of a unique folk art form. It`s a
uniquely Bangladeshi craft. It`s a people`s art and its motifs
are simple: cinemas, animals, landscapes or monuments," he
Every inch of a rickshaw, from hood to spokes, is
typically decorated but each vehicle also has a large tin
plate set on the lower-back which features the most elaborate
When Das first started painting rickshaw plates in
1953, rickshaw drivers would queue around the block to get his
paintings of buildings, idyllic Bangladeshi landscapes or
movie stars on their tin plate.
But over the past three decades, Dhaka has transformed
from a city of less than 100,000 people to a sprawling
metropolis of 13 million people.
As Dhaka has grown, rickshaws have fallen from the
Some half a million of the slow-moving tricycles still
ply Dhaka`s streets, but they are now seen as a major cause of
the city`s crippling congestion, which forces commuters to
spend an average of eight hours a day in jams.