Previously each rickshaw was being hand-painted with myriads of colourful flora and fauna, inspirational quotes and movie scenes. Nowadays it is nowhere to be found.
Afsana Shumi, an entrepreneur who herself practices fabric painting, vowed to find a way to keep the legacy of Rickshaw art alive. She was also determined to provide rickshaw painters with an alternative source of income. Though small scale, she employs rickshaw painters to create vibrant jewellery bearing original rickshaw art.
Rickshaw art, as we know it, has its roots in the 1940's, when rickshaws were first introduced to the urban streets of the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Grew out of the zeal of the displaced Biharis and north Indian refugees of partition, rickshaw soon formed into a distinct style. Each rickshaw was being hand-painted with myriads of colourful flora and fauna, inspirational quotes and movie scenes. Nowadays, as printing became the norm, the trend of hand-painted plates are nowhere to be found.
The idea to making painted jewellery inspired by rickshaw painting dawned on Afsana Shumi when she was running a small business. One of the brands she was trying to build up was called 'Bad Habit', where locally produces statement jewellery such as envelop shaped finger rings, clay flowers, hand-painted bracelets, hand-stitched pendants, leather earrings, motifs of owl, bee, notebook, burger, shoes etcetera were in use.
Rickshaw art was already being repurposed by some entrepreneurs, but they were being painted either by professional or amateur artists, not by people who were rickshaw painters by profession. In clothing, jewellery and even home décor, the popular motifs made their incursion. But what was 'hip' did not have to rely on contributions from the original rickshaw painters.
Since the craft was on the brink of extinction, Afsana decided to break out of this trend of imitation and directly employed Rickshaw painters. She started visiting rickshaw garages, but what she saw there was rather demoralising. Nowadays most rickshaw art is printed out onto plastic. The individuality of decorating a whole rickshaw by hand is nearly extinct. Still, she kept looking.
In 2017, Afsana started looking for rickshaw painters who could assist her in this journey. In a rickshaw garage in Meradia of Dhaka city, she found two such willing individuals, Meraj and Mamun, both of them in their 20s and open to ideas.
"Older rickshaw painters simply were not willing to spend their time behind such a foreign concept," said Afsana.
These two individuals paint traditional rickshaw painting motifs such as peacocks, tigers, roses and swans directly on pieces of the same tin that is used for rickshaws. These pieces are then edged with lace or ribbons and turned into statement pendants. They also paint on wood bracelets.
Despite starting with only two, gradually Afsana employed five rickshaw painters and their families in this endeavour. It has been quite difficult to manage the price, as she has to make sure the price is kept within an affordable threshold while also ensuring the rickshaw painters are paid a fair wage.
An obstacle in Afsana's path to expanding this business is, surprisingly, the rickshaw painters themselves. Due to a lack of motivation and trust in the entrepreneur, they are often not available for work and instead are often away on miscellaneous jobs.
"Whenever I manage to find them, I get them to paint a big lot of products, not knowing when or if they'll be available again,' Afsana said with a laughter.