Why is the upper class obsessed with ‘truck art’?

  • An open window into the mentality of the Pakistani upper class

It’s appropriate to begin this discussion with LUMS: one of Pakistan’s most prestigious universities, and home of the ‘Paindu Day’ festivities. This class-cultural equivalent of rubbing shoe polish on your face and pretending to be black for entertainment purpose, is an event celebrated just about every year with great gusto. Students, predominantly from some of the most privileged upper-class families of Pakistan, pour out into the campus grounds dressed in “paindu” clothing, performing “paindu” dances to “paindu” songs.

What is “Paindu”? Taken literally, it simply means something local; or more specifically, belonging to one’s local village. The word has been successfully repurposed by the neocolonial intelligentsia to refer to nearly everything belonging to the less refined sections of Pakistani society. Anything that reminds the proud Westernised Pakistani of his lowly origin – a thick Punjabi accent, brightly coloured clothing, heavily embroidered fabric, old Bollywood songs that are still ‘new’ in distant parts of Pakistan where latest art and trends are significantly slower to reach.

The ‘Paindu Day’ is both a mockery of the less enlightened people of the lower classes, as well a self-congratulatory ritual for escaping the shackles of regressive desi-ism and developing more refined, necessarily western, tastes in art and entertainment. The celebration runs like a revenge of the enlightened English-speaking minority, against the tyranny of the ‘jahil’ masses who mispronounce cookies as “bis-kut”.

The participating students, all dressed in interchangeable rural stereotypes, would like to assure you that they’re ‘just having fun’. Some attempt to defend this celebration as ‘homage’ rather than mockery. Whatever this day may be, it is an open window into the mentality of the Pakistani upper class.

We are a part of our zero-sum system where our wealth necessarily comes at the expense of an underprivileged group. This includes cultural wealth

If I’m caught “just having fun” by performing a funny reenactment of a Syrian kid gasping for air after a chlorine gas attack, what would that performance say about me and the sort of things I find ‘funny’? What does it say about my mindset and my feelings towards war victims?

When privileged students put on ajrak and fake mustaches while pretending to be bandits, what does it reveal about them and their political views?

‘Cultural appropriation’ is a phenomenon discussed mostly as part of the racial discourse in western countries. It implies a dominant group profiting, economically or otherwise, by ‘stealing’ cultural content created by a marginalised group of people. We’re accustomed to viewing centers and margins in racial terms, like white and black America; but there is no reason why they don’t also refer to economic classes.

Mass media is unsurprisingly dominated by the upper-middle and elite classes, producing content for Pakistanis who own TVs and have time to watch them. There is tremendous focus on the lives of upper-middle class and rich people, with the working class people often portrayed – if ever – as two-dimensional caricatures.

There’s a physical limit to how the cultural content that can be created and sold by the classes of central significance, creating a vacuum that sucks in culture from the margins. We absorb their culture through osmosis, but continue to keep their creators outside our gated communities.

Who among us wants to be a truck driver? Wouldn’t it be nice to have unrestricted access to truck depots and driver dhabas; to be surrounded all day by colourful peacock paintings, and hilarious Punjabi one-liners? To meet in person, the wonderfully imaginative, highly talented, and hideously underpaid artists who craft and decorate your objects of adoration?

Most of us would pass on that offer. We want the art, not the artist. The artist, and the class of people who inspired and popularised this art, may stay in whatever hole they’ve always lived in. All we want, is to plagiarise their cultural property, and smear it onto our upscale cafes that sell salty lassi for Rs300 a glass. None of the patrons at these expensive eateries would ever deign to step foot in a dhaba that has been displaying this art for decades. The truck-driver class never profited from its very own culture, as we’ve done from theirs.

For many decades, truck art remained the most recognisable symbol of paindu-ness; a visual representation of the uneducated, uncivilised, cheap ‘biskut’-eating sections of society. But that was until a generation of elite artists ran out of ideas, and decided to incorporate elements of “third-class” art into their own, juxtaposed ironically with their own high-class creations. Truck art had existed in our midst since beyond remembrance, but it’s only recently that ‘coolness’ was imbued into it by upper class patrons.

It’s essentially follows the same principle as the “Pindi-boy” lifestyle and culture. The elite, particularly the Islamabadi variety, mock Rawalpindi’s working class without mercy – much the same way as ‘Paindu Day’ participants at LUMS — while also tripping over each other to wear these cultures as evidence of them being down-to-earth and one with the masses.

While a rich Pakistani is complimented for brandishing working class culture, the ‘paindus’ – those who wear this culture every single day for reasons other than irony – are treated with contempt and derision.

We are a part of our zero-sum system where our wealth necessarily comes at the expense of an underprivileged group. This includes cultural wealth. As we profit from the tireless labour of those in a position too desperate to raise their heads and demand credit and compensation; we also profit from the art and music they produce.

Perhaps that’s no reason for us to tear our undeserving elite senses away from truck art. But we have reason to wonder what became of the people who created and nurtured this art form. Did they get the credit they deserve? Did they get the respect they deserve?