DHAKA: Mohammad Hanif Pappu has spent his life painting film stars — first on posters and then on rickshaws, a moving medium that over the past few decades has earned him legendary fame in Dhaka.

But it was only recently that he and his fellow craftsmen received global recognition, when the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, added rickshaw art to its list of intangible cultural heritage in December last year.

“I am very happy and thankful to UNESCO as they have recognized our artwork. I am also very happy as our works brought some good exposure to the country as well,” Pappu told Arab News at his workshop in the Hussaini Dalan Road of Old Dhaka.

Pappu, 62, started to work as a painter some five decades ago, learning the art from his maternal uncle. He painted movie posters until the beginning of the 2000s, when he turned to rickshaws as his canvas and taught the craft to dozens of other people.

Rickshaw artists paint almost every part of the vehicle with vivid, bright and colorful floral patterns, animals, fables, religious symbols, national heroes, or movie stars, turning the rickshaws into little roving exhibitions.

But interest in these decorations has fallen as fewer owners of the pedicabs can afford the decorations, and fewer artists choose the medium, given the growing accessibility of digital art.

“Many of our painters were forced to switch to other professions during the early years of this century, as the digital printing technology took over,” Pappu said.

“There are at most 30 or 40 rickshaw painters still running shops in Dhaka.”

He believes that with UNESCO recognition and increased interest, the art’s hour of glory could still arrive.

“Before people lose interest, we should make an institution to nurture this form of art,” he said.

“Rickshaw art has a unique form. It’s not like the traditional form of painting. It requires a special kind of craftsmanship.”

UNESCO recognized the craft as a key part not only of the city’s cultural tradition, but also a form of urban folk art, which provides a sense of shared identity and continuity.

Most of Dhaka’s more than 10 million residents use or have used rickshaws, which are “vehicles of urban life,” as Bangladeshi art critic Moinuddin Khaled refers to them.

“Rickshaws with paintings started plying Dhaka streets sometime at the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s … rickshaw art reached a peak point during the 1960s, and the reason behind this was the rise of our film industry,” he said.

“In that period, portraits of popular heroes and heroines of the Dhaka film industry dominated rickshaw paintings. Those paintings attracted people immediately.”

Growing customer interest in the art meant higher fares for rickshaw owners.

“Rickshaw paintings require exhibitionist patterns so that people notice them easily. The loud makeup looks of film stars were very much reflected in rickshaw paintings,” Khaled added. “Rickshaw pullers wanted to attract passengers.”

Besides movie stars, other popular themes include eye-pleasing floral decorations and animals. But many pedicabs also feature the faces of politicians or, owing to Bangladesh’s status as a Muslim-majority country, paintings of Islam’s holiest sites.

“The history of rickshaw painting is related to the politics and social developments in this country,” Khaled said.

“When people get stuck in traffic jams, rickshaw paintings offer visual relief. Rickshaw art represents a popular choice and conveys some messages. Sometimes, the painters write ‘mother’s blessings.’ It conveys positivity and good thoughts.”

Dhaka is sometimes known as a city of rickshaws, because the vehicles will be found on every street, lane or alley. Some have never seen their city without the vehicles.

“Life without traveling on a rickshaw is mostly unimaginable… Dhaka without rickshaws would look like an alien land for city dwellers,” said Miraj Minhaz, 23, a student at Dhaka University.

“I feel proud of being a part of this city of rickshaws.”

Mina Rahman, a resident of Dhaka’s Dhanmondi area, mostly connects rickshaw commutes to her youth, but is still attracted to the iconic artwork on the vehicles in adulthood.

“While stuck in traffic jams, I enjoy watching rickshaw paintings. It’s very colorful and interesting to watch,” she said.

“To me, it feels like watching a movie, as pictures change from one rickshaw to another.”

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