More Cowbell!

30 Mar

Rearview icon, Aurangabad.

When SendMoneyPlease asked me why in the world I wanted to spend 5 weeks in India, I replied (in addition to the food, bien entendu) “to see color and chaos,” a response with which he couldn’t argue. Now, while both “color” and “chaos” exist in India in innumerable forms, the population has elevated one artform to a superlative level: auto decoration.

“Blow Horn,” Bikanir.

I’ve long maintained that we’re very conservative when it comes to our choice of car colors, but this is one topic which I can assure you, no amount of written words or photos can do justice (partly because I usually spotted the best examples from our own careening vehicle). I simply cannot capture the vast variety and creativity with which professional (and not so professional) Indian drivers have decorated their modes of transport.

Bumper flower. Kochi.

Just about every vehicle that moves in India contains at least a small photo, postcard or sticker for luck or remembrance – of gods and prophets – prominently placed near the steering wheel or on the dashboard or tucked where a sun visor would be. Professional drivers have even more lucky charms – icons and bangles and tinsel and something uncannily resembling a ‘70s macramé plant holder hanging from the rearview mirror (some so long or numerous that you have to wonder if the luck simply counteracts the fact that they obstruct the view of the driver in the first place). There’s the truly baffling either real or synthetic “hair tassels” (yep, I had to ask what it was too) dragging from the front grill. And the decorative (or is it for safety, hmmm. . .) covering of any windshield cracks with bright red tape and flowery stickers.

Cute rickshaw kitty (?!). Beypore.

Now, so far, these items appear to be for luck or safety on the roads, something which after having ridden around Indian roads for several weeks I can thoroughly appreciate. And the wedding vehicle decorations are impressive as well – colorful ribbons taped in endless bumpy waves, flashy metallic tinsel and mylar flowers. Again, something that is in my visual vocabulary for celebrations and festivals and parades.


Tire fish! Beypore.

But then the auto and truck decoration enters the truly artistic realm. And like art, personal taste is individual and unlimited. There are countless photos of Indian and western film and pop stars (Oh, if Angelina Jolie only knew how many photos of her are pinned up in Indian rickshaws!). There were leather (not cow, mind you) dashboard covers for every make and model of car, truck or rickshaw – all with perfect cutouts in just the right places to open the dash compartment and allow the air vents to still function. We were rocked and popped by the most happening of sound systems fitted into tiny tuktuk trunks.

Bus baby. Calicut.

There are custom-installed cushions and slick vinyl covers in every color of fake tiger print and plastic roses. Entire (one square meter) interiors of rickshaws had been meticulously hand sewn with so much plastic and dangling tassels from the ceiling that any swinging bachelor pad would be put to shame. Austin Powers would be so proud! Metal flowers were soldered onto siderails and hubcaps. Multi-colored airbrushing abounds. There are the photos of cute animals and landscape scenes and (?!?) light-skinned babies. (No, not goddess-babies. Just regular babies. Clearly.)

Back window. Jaipur.

And the horns! The constant horns! No boring “beep-beeps” here. The horns each have characters of their own – tiny cartoon sirens, undulating mechanical whistles, huge overpowering airhorns, vaguely musical melodies that trail off on their own until pressed again (and again, and again, and again).

“Goods Carrier,” Kochi.

The professional truck drivers have a style all their own. Every inch of a semi is brightly colored: hand-painted with gods and landscapes, symbols and the declaration of their united profession “Goods Carrier” emblazoned across the front. Carefully painted written warnings read “Blow Horn,” and “Use Dippers at Night.” Multi-colored tassels and tinsel flash and dangle in the truck’s constantly changing motion. I’ve never seen so much colored electrical tape – wrapped around every corner in garish patterns and stripes.

Truck undercarriage. Kochi.

I’m not entirely sure what motivates the collective drivers of India to fill their lives and streets with such color and fancy displays. It’s an intangible over-the-top quality that makes a ride in India unforgettable and difficult to describe. I keep thinking back to that old Volvo in town that you’d spot every now and then (every town had one) – with the artificial flowers hot-glued all over it? Maybe they had the right idea all along. May we all be as festive with our transport!


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