In Pakistan, rickshaws are a major form of transportation in both densely populated urban and rural areas. Often a colorful blur as their drivers weave through heavy traffic on main roads and narrow alleys, rickshaws, like trucks and buses, have served as popular canvases for artistic expression and advertising for decades. Recognized as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, rickshaw art renders each vehicle unique in its display of political, religious, social and personal artwork, poetry and prose directed at a broad audience.
In recent times, rickshaws have been appropriated by right-wing political and religious parties, especially the Pakistan Defence Council (a coalition of religious organizations) to promote an anti-Indian and anti-American agenda. But Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA), a youth-based non-profit organization established in 2007, is challenging this jihadi discourse through its Aman Sawari, or Peace Rickshaws, project.
"In lieu of the rickshaw art widely used by right-wing organizations to spread their ideology on streets, it is necessary to counter their message on the same platform and turn this romanticized art form into a symbol of peace and tolerance," explains Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, co-founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance.
With a vision for creating a culture of peace through art, the Peace Rickshaws project utilizes rickshaws as a medium for peace-building advocacy and, in the process, reclaims a local art form which is currently being heavily used to spread hate-filled discourse. The initiative is intended to promote regional and inter-faith tolerance, nonviolence and conflict prevention messages. Many of the slogans used on the Peace Rickshaws are spins on common phrases, songs and advertisement tag lines used in truck, bus and rickshaw art and in popular culture. For example, "Pappu yaar jang na kar" ("Pappu [a common nickname] yaar, don't make war") is a spin on "Pappu yaar tang na kar" ("Pappu yaar, don't bother me"), a catchphrase ubiquitous in pop culture, street art and everyday life in Pakistan.
The Alliance plans to design and decorate 50 rickshaws for the streets of Karachi in the initial phase of the project. Keeping in line with its objective of engaging youth to promote peace through art, multimedia and popular culture, the Alliance engaged over 200 students between the ages of 12 and 18 from ten public schools in Karachi for the project. The students work in collaboration with the primary artists in a series of interactive workshops oriented toward peace-building advocacy.
Zaidi explains that "The idea is to train them [students] in rickshaw and chammak-patti (reflective stickers used on vehicles and road signage) art, to extract from them peace-centric sloganeering after basic orientation and to implement the final design with their collaboration." Because each rickshaw's body will essentially be a product of the young people's collective brainstorming, PYA aims to make youth a part of the process of addressing Karachi's conflicts.
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