July 5, 2013

Horn Please- Shantanu Suman

By Payal Khandelwal

While we have all seen the vibrant and dazzling truck art in India through our own eyes and often through various photographers’ and videographers’ lenses too, but have never really gone to the roots of where and how it all started. Shantanu Suman decides to travel to the interiors of the country to throw spotlight on what the truck art really means to the truck owners and how it goes way beyond just being colorful “art”.

A masters student at the University of Florida, Suman, along with a group of talented individuals, has created the unique documentary Horn Please. The film talks about the origin of truck art in India, its evolution and how it influences not just the world of art but also the lives of the artists and truckers who interact with it on a daily basis. Apart from this film, he has extensively worked on various other innovative projects centered on Indian trucks as a part of his university thesis. For him, this is just the beginning.

Here is an in-depth interview with Shantanu Suman and a showcase of his work.


Miniature Indian truck 3D model by Suman

When did you first realise that you were interested in design?

I am from a small town in Chattishgarh, named Bhilai. My dad used to be an engineer with the SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited). While growing up I was kind of the black sheep in that society. While all the other kids were trying hard to be successful in IIT, PET, PMT etc., I wanted to be a designer. Although I wasn’t sure what kind of designer. I applied to Apeejay Institute of Design (New Delhi) and started college in 2000. After discussing with my professors, I finally decided to pursue Graphic Design as a career option.

How was your experience in the Indian advertising space? What were the learnings and complaints?

I have had a phenomenal experience in advertising. There were lots of happy days mixed with hard work, and of course some frustrations. I got to work with some of the best creative people from Delhi advertising — Prasad & Emmanuel, Deepak Dogra, Tito, Danny & Suchitra, Arnab & Kapil, Vaybhav and Anand etc. I learned different working styles from all of them and it was easy to reinvent the style from time to time. Arnab and Kapil were instrumental in pairing me up with my copy partner Antara Aneja and they taught me the importance of team work.

I moved to Publicis Mumbai in 2008. Mumbai was certainly more fun than Delhi. I was paired up with Nikhil Panjwani and together we worked on some award winning work. I loved my work in advertising but after a few years I realized that my life was all about my work. I wish I had learnt how to maintain a balance between work and life. And that is when I decided to take a break from advertising. Finally in 2010, I decided to pursue my masters in graphic design at the University of Florida.

In general, you are particularly interested in typography and you have done some interesting projects on that. When did this start? What are some of the other projects you are working on which are heavily based in typography?

It will be difficult to trace back my interest in typography. A lot of the credit goes to advertising. We used to get a lot of projects with the tight budgets and deadlines. Most of the times, photography was out of the question. So the best way to make the work visible and interesting was to have a simple idea with good typography. But when I say good typography, it means to be able to work with long body copy and to choose typefaces according to the project. The projects about trumpet and shoestrings are typographical experiments based on various ideas. e.g. the trumpet typography can be used as a 3D model for some musical concert and similarly the shoestring typography can be used to promote sale on shoe brands.


I still use a lot of typography in my work. And interestingly over the last two years, I have taught typography to the undergrad students at the University of Florida.

Image converted using ifftoany

When did you begin getting interested in Indian trucks started?

The Indian street art is my favorite form of vernacular art. But I have loved truck art no less. Ever since my college days in Delhi, I used to go for road trips with my friends. While on road the Indian trucks are some of the most beautiful, yet dangerous creatures you can witness. I have been fascinated with truck art since then. But it was only in 2008, during my road trip to the Western Ghats from Mumbai, I saw more of these beautifully painted trucks and decided to do something about my love for truck art. Unfortunately, I had to wait until I came back to college for my Masters to work on this project. I decided to focus my final thesis at UF on the research and study of the Indian Truck art.

During the summer of 2011, when I began my research on the truck art of India, little documentation was available in the form of research and published papers. And whatever I found, most of it was about the truck art in Pakistan and nearly all of it was written by foreign writers and thus lacked a very good understanding of the cultural and religious significance of the art form. So instead of depending on some secondary source of research, I decided to travel to India to do my own research about the truck art of India.

Tell us about the projects you have worked on about trucks in India?

Before I could travel back to India I developed two projects — Use Rubber at Night and Truckopoly. These projects were developed based on the limited information that was available to me through online sources and a few phone conversations with a friend/truck owner. Both the projects received a lot of acclaim by numerous design websites and blogs across the globe. And the same year I was awarded the Academic excellence award from the College of Fine Arts at UF. This really encouraged me to take my research further.




Use Rubber at Night

When was the experience of working on Horn Please and what were some of the interesting observations?

During the summer of 2012, I traveled to India. Over a span of six weeks, I traveled to more than six cities, interviewed over 45 people and collected information in the form of video footage, still photographs and notes. I was joined by two friends Istling Mirche and Shreedavy Babuji for the research who helped me with the making of the documentary film Horn Please. During the journey, I was able to exchange ideas with a myriad of individuals, including truck painters, art historians, designers, transporters, truck drivers, and typographers.

I gained a new perspective about my own country through the research. I realized that in India, owning a vehicle was a matter of huge pride and distinction for a truck driver. However the investment made to beautify the truck was dependent on the truckers’ affordability. Before I had started the research, I thought the art form was nearing an extinction. But during the course of the research, I was informed that it was actually undergoing a period of transformation — from a hand painted art form to an art that was greatly influenced by the introduction of vinyl stickers and decals. There were various other discoveries, some of which have been talked about in the documentary.


Apart from the documentary film, I also held an exhibition at UF about the truck art. Manual labor and machinery were used together to create pieces of the exhibition — the similar kind of collaboration that you see nowadays for decorating Indian trucks. There were screen printed posters in hand made wooden frames, nine handmade and handpainted wooden boxes to highlight the name of the exhibition and to recreate the experience of truck horns on Indian roads and a 3D prototype of an Indian truck Since the exhibition was held in the US, it was important for me to exhibit the structure of an Indian truck. The trucks here look very different from the ones we see in India.

The documentary film was screened just before the opening reception of the exhibition so that people could have a better understanding about the truck industry as well as the art form. The screening of the film was a standing room only!

Where all is the documentary available? When/where will be screenings in India?

The documentary has been screened at a couple of venues in Gainesville (Florida). I have a Miami screening scheduled for early next year and I’m also talking to people at a few more places in the US for some screening venues. The film was produced by Talkies Films (Mumbai) and the post production was done with the help of The Cutting Crew (Mumbai). It is a self-funded project so we don’t have the finance to rent out a place for screening. And we are not charging an entry fee to watch the film. At the moment we are open to invitations and suggestions about screening venues, in India and elsewhere in the world.

You will be graduating in August 2013. What next after that?

I feel that a lot needs to be done about the truck art of India and I might have just started the process. With the limited time and budget, I was just able to share the stories of a few individuals related to this art form. I would definitely like to take this project to the next stage. But that would need some time and a larger budget. For now, I have a lot of photographs from my research trip to India and I would like to make a coffee-table book for the truck art of India. As far as my regular design work is concerned, I am taking new projects and working independently as a freelancer for the couple of years. Haven’t really planned anything beyond that.

To watch the trailer of Horn Please, click here.

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