The Strange Handmade Charm Of India

Sometimes the more mundane something is, the more beautiful it is

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Here in the USA, you can almost always spot an Indian product. This is very different than Chinese products, which are so numerous and varied as to be anonymous. But Indian products you find in the America, they almost all have this artisan/handmade quality. Whether it’s jewelry in bins at Anthropologie or manhole covers or a pair of scissors, the hallmark of Indian exports is that they at least feel like someone made them by hand. And that goes for much of the automotive culture as well.

This first struck me when I was looking at the license plates. India doesn’t seem to have a standard license plate, so the plates vary from cheap-but-efficient plastic ones provided by dealerships to the fancy, raised-letter plaques of the wealthy that identify the occasional Benz or Range Rover. My favorite type of license plate is one of the more numerous: the hand-painted ones.

These vary in quality, and some are really quite well-done. In the US, signpainting has become a dying art, with cheap computer printing and decal and silkscreening services making very effective predators of old signpainters. But seeing these carefully-painted license tags in India gave me a strange feeling.


License plates are about as mundane as you can get. Car folks may like to collect them, or the occasional funky purse is made from them, or, more likely, they’re used to patch that rust hole under your pedals, but they’re not generally considered art on their own. So when an actual person, an artisan, takes the time with a brush to carefully render the letters and numbers, what is that? Since Warhol painted advertisements and soup cans the idea of the literal portrayal in paint of commercial design is well established, and a series of these simple, elegant painted license plates could probably be exhibited in a variety of LA galleries. And I’m not really sure what that means.


It’s not just license plates. Aside from the decorated trucks, more commercially-driven and straightforward company-owned trucks, with a set and determined livery, are the products of an artist and brush as well. This is really strange. The decorated Tata trucks make sense as hand-painted things — they’re eleven tons of rolling folk art, and the medium and the message are in perfect harmony. But what am I supposed to think about a lovingly rendered hazardous chemicals warning box on an Indian Oil tanker truck?

Just look at that truck up top there. From a distance, it could pass as almost any American fuel tanker, with the corporate logos and DOT-required warning panels. In the US, all these things would be either decals or silkscreened onto the metal, one of thousands, each just like the last. But in India, an artist with paint and a brush dresses the truck in company colors, making the best approximation of the cold, clean, efficent look of a mass-produced thing.


I saw many trucks like this one. In fact, by far most of the vehicles that had logos or printed information on them had that information painted on them by hand. I suppose this is telling of India, a country where skilled artisan labor is much cheaper and more common than machinery to produce signs and stickers and whatever.


I’m not going to pretend like this is some profound realization, but I do think it gives a fascinating insight into the fundamental character of India. It’s not China, it’s not a clean, sleek, efficient factory nation churning out iPads and novelty butt plugs. It’s an equally industrious nation, but that industry is more likely to be the product of an individual hand than a robot arm.

I found these trucks strangely beautiful, the more so because you could feel in each careful brushstroke just how much the painter longed to make his work look like it wasn’t painted at all. The artist wanted to pull himself out of the equation entirely, but the basic imperfection of our own abilities make that pretty much impossible.


And, as a result, beautiful.