Ramesh Shukla is not just a pho­tog­ra­pher but UAE’s time keeper. Whether it is ev­ery­day life or mo­men­tous mo­ments, he’s cap­tured them all in his pic­tures.

A long-time res­i­dent of Dubai, pho­tog­ra­pher Ramesh Shukla takes Anand Raj OK down mem­ory lane cap­tur­ing the life and times of the lead­ers and the peo­ple of the UAE

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Ramesh Shukla may be nudg­ing 80, but his pho­to­graphic mem­ory is still in sharp fo­cus.

Dressed in a dap­per blue suit, the soft-spo­ken pho­tog­ra­pher who re­cently pub­lished his eighth book, The UAE:

50 Years in Pic­tures, leads me to the vin­tage pho­to­graphs sec­tion of his son Neel Shukla’s cav­ernous Four Sea­sons Ramesh Gallery, on Zabeel Road. On the white walls, prints of sev­eral of Ramesh’s iconic works are on sale.

‘See that pic­ture?’ he says, point­ing to a large black and white pho­to­graph of the Shar­jah cor­niche. ‘That was one of the first pic­tures I took when I ar­rived here over 50 years ago.’

The day he cap­tured the pic­ture is still etched in his mind.

Af­ter a gru­elling five-day voy­age by boat from Mum­bai, In­dia, dur­ing which he sur­vived ‘largely on a few bunches of ba­nanas that I’d packed’, Ramesh, who was in his 20s at the time, was glad to step foot on land in Shar­jah. ‘We were 42 peo­ple on the boat and were very tired af­ter the long trip,’ he says.

He had just Rs50 (around Dh77 is to­day’s value) in his pocket, but there were a lot more pre­cious things in the small suit­case he was hold­ing onto tightly – 25 rolls of film and a Rolle­icord cam­era his fa­ther, a tex­tile dealer in Gu­jarat, had given him on his 14th birth­day.

‘Clutch­ing my box, I walked down the gang­plank but I was so ex­hausted af­ter the voy­age that I de­cided to rest in the shade of a small of­fice be­fore which a few peo­ple had queued up,’ he says.

Ramesh quickly snoozed off to wake up a cou­ple of hours later. Re­freshed, the then news­pa­per pho­tog­ra­pher from Mum­bai, who was on an as­sign­ment to cap­ture Arab life in the re­gion, picked up his case and headed off into the mar­ket area to be­gin his job.

‘The sights, sounds and smells of the place were fas­ci­nat­ing and in­trigu­ing,’ he re­calls. ‘The com­mon peo­ple going about their chores, the quaint souq abuzz with ac­tiv­ity, lo­cal traders hawk­ing their wares… Ev­ery­thing was so in­ter­est­ing that I quickly fished out my cam­era and started shoot­ing.’

Lit­tle did he know that all the while a ma­jor is­sue was brew­ing at the im­mi­gra­tion of­fice near the port – the place where he had snoozed. The boat’s man­i­fest showed 42 pas­sen­gers but only 41 had been ac­counted for at the im­mi­gra­tion counter. One man – Ramesh Shukla – seemed to have dis­ap­peared.

‘I was busy with my cam­era when a po­lice of­fi­cer on a mo­tor­bike came by and asked me who I was and what I was do­ing there,’ con­tin­ues Ramesh. When the pho­tog­ra­pher showed him his pass­port, the of­fi­cer pointed out that it did not bear an im­mi­gra­tion stamp.

‘I apol­o­gised pro­fusely and said that I had no idea about im­mi­gra­tion pro­ce­dures. I also ex­plained all that had hap­pened af­ter I dis­em­barked.

‘The of­fi­cer was a very kind man. He asked me if I’d had any­thing to eat and when I said no, told me to hop on to his bike and took me to his home where I was served a nice meal. He told me to rest for a cou­ple of hours af­ter which he took me to Shar­jah Airport. There, he got my pass­port stamped at the im­mi­gra­tion counter. ‘Now you can go and do your job,’ he said, with a pat on my back.’

With such friendly peo­ple, it didn’t take long for Ramesh to fall in love with the new place. ‘The lo­cal peo­ple were warm, wel­com­ing and hos­pitable,’ he says.

Af­ter a cou­ple of days in Shar­jah, Ramesh de­cided to ex­plore the area and lit­er­ally

marched off to Dubai – which would soon be­come his new home. ‘The area around the creek was fas­ci­nat­ing,’ he re­calls. ‘I pho­tographed the Dubai creek, peo­ple liv­ing by the creek, boats and dhows that ar­rived… Even at that time I was im­pressed and over­whelmed by the vibe of the city. It had an ex­tra­or­di­nary buzz, a throb­bing life.’

At that time – the ‘60s – cam­eras and pho­to­graphs were un­com­mon, so when he started shoot­ing, many of his sub­jects were in­trigued and ap­pre­hen­sive. ‘They wanted to know more about the ‘ma­chine’ I had,’ he says, of his cam­era. ‘Luck­ily, al­most all of them could con­verse in Hindi – thanks to the bustling trade with the sub­con­ti­nent – so com­mu­ni­ca­tion was not a ma­jor prob­lem.’

A month later, Ramesh re­turned to Mum­bai (then Bom­bay) ‘mainly be­cause I ran out of money.’ He’d ex­posed all the 25 rolls that he had brought along, and af­ter de­vel­op­ing and print­ing the pho­to­graphs, he sent off a se­lec­tion of pic­tures to a few In­dian mag­a­zines.

‘Once they were pub­lished the fea­tures elicited a huge re­sponse be­cause for many readers, it was the first time they were see­ing a place that they had only heard about from traders and trav­ellers,’ says Ramesh. ‘The pho­to­graphs of­fered them a fresh in­sight into the Gulf re­gion.’

He bagged more com­mis­sions for sim­i­lar fea­tures from Dubai and Shar­jah and the pho­tog­ra­pher this time de­cided to take along his fam­ily – wife Taru and then four-year-old son Neel. Trav­el­ling again by boat the trio ar­rived in Deira where Ramesh set up a stu­dio, nam­ing it Neel Ka­mal.

‘Deira and the area around it had so much in store for me by way of pic­tures,’ he says.

Keen to cap­ture it all on film, Ramesh would wake up at 5am, grab a cup of tea, sling his cam­era over his shoul­der and set off ‘to take pic­tures of the emi­rate wak­ing up,’ he says. ‘But my pas­sion was peo­ple and I con­cen­trated on tak­ing as many pic­tures I could of men, women and chil­dren.’

Back at his stu­dio at around 11, Ramesh would turn to his other pas­sion – art – sit­ting be­fore his easel un­til late in the evening cre­at­ing breath­tak­ing images on can­vas. Then just be­fore dusk he would step out again to take more pic­tures ‘be­cause evenings of­fer great light for pho­tog­ra­phy’. He would re­turn home late at night but he was happy stay­ing busy. ‘For me, 24 hours just didn’t seem enough in a day,’ he says.

Ramesh’s life, though, was not as bright and colour­ful as the oils that he painted.

His house in Deira – a far cry from his present plush four-bed­room apart­ment on Zabeel Road – was a small, dark, three-room struc­ture be­hind his stu­dio, where kitchen uten­sils and buck­ets dou­bled as trays for de­vel­op­ing film. ‘My wife

Ramesh has taken ‘thou­sands and thou­sands’ of photos, some of which have made their way into the eight books that he has pub­lished. ‘I’m so happy to be part of the his­tory of the UAE,’ he says

had to con­stantly re­mind Neel not to play with the cans of chem­i­cals ly­ing around the house that were used to process the film,’ he says, with a laugh.

‘Those days, I used to shoot around 100 pic­tures a day, then man­u­ally de­velop and print them at night,’ he says.

While can­did shots were his forte, Ramesh was also reg­u­larly in­vited to pho­to­graph ‘wed­dings, cel­e­bra­tions… just about any func­tion’, he says. He ad­mits that some­times he went un­in­vited, too, to cap­ture the cul­tural ethos. ‘My pas­sion was out­doors and I wanted to spend as much times as I could pho­tograph­ing peo­ple and the soul of the city.’

He re­mem­bers vis­it­ing Abu Dhabi, which at the time re­quired a special travel pass. ‘I shot a lot of pic­tures there too,’ he says.

The in­come Ramesh earned from the pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio was barely enough to main­tain his fam­ily mainly be­cause he used to set aside a ma­jor chunk of his earn­ings to up­grade his equip­ment. ‘I’m happy and grate­ful that my wife never once com­plained,’ he says, with a smile.

But 1968 would be a turn­ing point for the lens­man. ‘I heard there was to be a three-day camel race in Shar­jah so I hopped onto my bi­cy­cle and headed off to the race track with my cam­era,’ he says.

There, he was amazed to see Shaikh Zayed Bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan, who later be­came Pres­i­dent of the UAE, and Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Mak­toum, who later be­came Vice Pres­i­dent of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, watch­ing the races. ‘They were sit­ting on the ground keenly en­joy­ing the races.’

Ramesh quickly be­gan pho­tograph­ing them from dif­fer­ent an­gles, ‘try­ing my best to in­clude the ex­cite­ment and en­ergy of the place.’

Once the races were over, he ped­alled back quickly to his stu­dio in Dubai, pro­cessed and printed the pic­tures and the next day re­turned to the track. ‘Shaikh Zayed was there to watch the races and, dur­ing a break, I walked up to him and pre­sented a black and white por­trait of him. The leader seemed to like the pic­ture be­cause he smiled, signed it, then did some­thing I will never for­get: He pre­sented me with the pen that he used to au­to­graph the photo and told me ‘you are No 1’.

‘Shaikh Zayed’s words of en­cour­age­ment and his ges­ture gave me the im­pe­tus to con­tinue record­ing the his­tory of a coun­try that was in the mak­ing.’

Charged up with the praise, Ramesh be­gan to spend more time cap­tur­ing images of the re­gion – on film and on can­vas.

A few years later, in 1971, he along with thou­sands of peo­ple would be wit­ness to an epoch-mak­ing mo­ment at the Union House in Jumeirah, Dubai – the sign­ing of the treaty for the for­ma­tion of the UAE.

The oc­to­ge­nar­ian leans back in the sofa with a smile rec­ol­lect­ing that mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion.

‘I was at the venue at 6am, much be­fore the dig­ni­taries ar­rived,’ he says. As the Rulers of the emi­rates be­gan to ar­rive for the sign­ing, Ramesh’s heart started rac­ing. ‘It was such a mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion that I felt my heart would burst with joy,’ he says.

As the Rulers took their places in the Union House, flash­bulbs popped as Ramesh and other na­tional and in­ter­na­tional me­dia per­sons be­gan cap­tur­ing the his­tor­i­cal mo­ment for pos­ter­ity.

‘When the sign­ing of the treaty be­gan, my eyes were glued to the pen in Shaikh Zayed’s hands. I wanted to cap­ture the mo­ment he would sign the doc­u­ment so I po­si­tioned my­self at a van­tage point. I was barely five or six feet away and was so ex­cited that my hands were shiver­ing as I tried to fo­cus my cam­era on his hands and his pen. I knew it was the most im­por­tant mo­ment – a his­tor­i­cal mo­ment.

‘That pic­ture of him sign­ing is, I guess, one of my best works.’

More ex­cit­ing mo­ments were to come. The pic­ture that would go on to be­come an em­blem of UAE his­tory would hap­pen min­utes later.

A huge round of ap­plause fol­lowed the sign­ing of the doc­u­ment af­ter which the Rulers stepped out­side Union House to un­furl the UAE flag. The in­trepid pho­tog­ra­pher guessed the Rulers would as­sem­ble near the flag­pole and quickly rushed there. ‘By the time they ar­rived, I’d po­si­tioned my­self to take pic­tures. In fact, I ac­tu­ally fell to the ground, pulled out my cam­era and started click­ing,’ he says. ‘I re­mem­ber I took seven con­sec­u­tive pic­tures.’ One of them shows the lead­ers stand­ing in front of the UAE flag flut­ter­ing mer­rily on the tall flag­pole – a ver­sion of which would go on to be­come the image that is now the ‘Spirit of the Union’ logo and can be seen in govern­ment of­fices, mu­se­ums, metro sta­tions and on bumper stick­ers.

Over the years, Ramesh has taken ‘thou­sands and thou­sands’ of photos, some of which have made their way into the books that he has pub­lished. ‘I’m so happy to be part of the his­tory of the UAE and am glad to have recorded his­tory for pos­ter­ity,’ he says. See­ing the pic­tures that he took now adorn­ing the walls of metro sta­tions in Dubai, mu­se­ums, of­fices, on stamps and even on the cur­rency gives him im­mense plea­sure. ‘A great hon­our was to see part of my works of the last 50 years at the Etihad Mu­seum. It was a dream come true.’

For many years some of his works were dis­played in an ex­hi­bi­tion area at Al Fahidi His­tor­i­cal Neigh­bour­hood (for­merly Bas­takiya) in Bur Dubai. ‘My photos adorned the walls of 17 rooms there,’ he says. ‘When I was shift­ing from Bas­takiya to [Four Sea­sons Ramesh Gallery], I

had to char­ter five large trucks to trans­port my col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs and pic­tures.’

Ramesh, who has met and pho­tographed many world lead­ers, says he is yet to process more than 2,000 rolls of film taken dur­ing the 70s and 80s. ‘Sev­eral of them are can­did pic­tures of the UAE Rulers. I haven’t had the time to de­velop those rolls.’

An ac­com­plished artist who has also done hun­dreds of paint­ings – of Rulers, na­ture, the early days of the UAE – Ramesh says he is plan­ning to put them in a new bou­tique he has re­cently taken in Satwa.

So, what drove him to shoot an av­er­age of around 50 pic­tures a day for the last 50 years?

‘The sheer joy of chron­i­cling his­tory,’ he says. ‘Noth­ing gives me greater joy than tak­ing pic­tures of the de­vel­op­ment of the UAE.’

Ramesh Shukla with the iconic pic­ture of UAE’s lead­ers that he cap­tured in 1971

Shaikh Zayed and Shaikh Rashid among other dig­ni­taries watch­ing a camel race in Shar­jah in 1968

Al Nasr Square in Dubai, 1968. Ramesh’s house is in the back­ground.

Atop the Am­bas­sador Ho­tel in Dubai in 1971. In the process of tak­ing pic­tures from here, Ramesh slipped and fell end­ing up with seven bro­ken teeth

Shaikh Zayed (cen­tre) and Shaikh Rashid (right) at a camel race in 1968. RIGHT: Shaikh Rashid at the Dubai airport in 1971 and, ABOVE RIGHT, at the Ruler’s Of­fice in 1972

A 1969 pic­ture of Shaikh Mo­ham­mad Bin Rashid Al Mak­toum at the Ruler’s Of­fice in Dubai

Ramesh’s stu­dio in Naif Road in 1967

Ramesh also did a fash­ion shoot for Vogue in In­dia in 1962. BE­LOW: The Dubai creek in 1968

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