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Yo-Yo Ma's Other Passion

In celebrating the cultures of the ancient Silk Road, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has found a second calling

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Back in the city center, a warren of dusty streets and alleys crowded with rows of open-air shops is filled with the tools and ornaments of the truck painters’ trade. In one shop, gaudy gilt peacocks and fish sparkle among the shadows beneath beadwork eagles dangling from the ceiling. In a workshop nearby, a dapper metalworker, draped in an immaculately white knee-length tunic with matching prayer cap, hammers nickel steel sheets into mudguard flaps, creating repousse tigers and chevron designs he will later paint in bright colors. Down the lane, a 14-year-old boy brushes an iron grille with acid to remove rust. Ducking down a side street, Kenoyer squeezes past a ramshackle corrugated tin door to behold Uddin and Ali’s latest masterpiece, a 1980 Hino, a Japanese-manufactured, high-paneled truck sitting resplendently in the shade of a colossal banyan tree. The truck is a primer of Pakistani history, myth and aesthetics.

On its tailgate, flanked by twin Kashmiri mountain ranges, is a portrait of Pakistani martyr Sarwar Shaheed, depicted as a uniformed officer standing before the country’s green-and-white flag. Stainless steel balls in an unbroken row ring the underbody and clang together when the truck is under way. Above the cab, broad panels rise like cinema marquees covered with idealized renderings of the Taj Mahal, Mecca’s Kaabah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. On the truck’s sides, next to hot-pink curlicues and a sylvan lake scene, state-of-the-art Ghauri-3 missiles and an F-17 jet fly across a starry sky. “Pakistan has only the Ghauri-1 and -2 and the F-16,” says a smiling Kenoyer. “Maybe they’re trying to be ahead of the curve.

“Truckers put an astonishing amount of money into the decoration, some of them upwards of $700 for the painting and another $4,000 spent on the bodywork every three or four years,” he adds. Asked why they plow so much money into them, a trucker responds: “One-upmanship! It’s also good advertising to show how great business is.”

Across town, Kenoyer pays a call on Ghulam Mustafa, a Muslim who has spent most of his 56 years carving exquisite Buddhist sculptures. He plans to carve replicas of Gandharan sculptures at the Folklife Festival. From the second century b.c. through the fourth century a.d., the ancient province of Hellenistic Gandhara, 700 miles north of Karachi, produced one of the most sublime marriages of Western and Eastern aesthetics. Carved figures with togalike robes and halos were modeled after statuary of the Greek gods, yet typically possessed the serene expressions of devotion traditionally found in South Asian religious artworks.

Like the early stone carvers, Mustafa makes his living executing commissions for wealthy collectors. In his patron’s open-air studio, the white-bearded stone carver delicately chips away at a block of green schist that he’s hauled from his home near Gandhara. “Since the stone comes from the same region as the original sculptures, his copies appear authentic,” says Kenoyer. At the festival, Mustafa is planning to put together a Gandharan-style frieze with a Buddha in the center flanked by two bodhisattvas, Buddhist deities.

Like Yo-Yo Ma, Kenoyer believes that the current flurry of activities concerning the people and cultures of the Silk Road region can be a force for good. “The Folklife Festival is going to bring artists together again after many years of separation for political reasons,” he says. “It will be an unprecedented opportunity for these people to understand how their art can influence what someone else creates on the other side of the world.”

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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