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18 October 2017Last updated
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Features | People

Meet Ramesh Shukla, the man who captured the Spirit of the Union photograph

A long-time resident of Dubai, Ramesh Shukla goes down memory lane to capture the life and times of the leaders and the people in the UAE

Anand Raj OK
22 Sep 2017 | 12:00 am
  • Ramesh Shukla with the iconic picture of UAE’s leaders that he captured in 1971.

    Source:Stefan Lindeque

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.

Watch: A photographic slice of the UAE’s history

‘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.

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

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.

Read: The story of the UAE through a lens

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.

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

‘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.

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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

‘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.

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Shaikh Zayed (centre) and Shaikh Rashid (right) at a camel race in 1968

‘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.

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Above: Shaikh Rashid at the Dubai airport in 1971 and, Below: at the Ruler’s Office in 1972

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‘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.

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

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.’

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Ramesh at the Gateway of India in Mumbai in 1962

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.’

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Ramesh’s studio in Naif Road in 1967

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.

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‘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.’

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The Dubai creek in 1968

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.

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One of Ramesh’s favourite pictures - a woman fetching water in Dibba in 1972

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.’

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Dubai World Trade Centre soon after it was built in 1979

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.

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The Clock Tower in Dubai in 1968

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 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.’

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Above: Ramesh enjoyed taking pictures of people. Qusais in 1968. Below: The Hamriya Port the same year.

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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.’

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Shaikh Mohammad making a satellite phone call from Western Pakistan in 1978

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.’

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The Dubai creek in 1969

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.

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Ramesh having a bath in his small home in Deira in 1974

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.’

PHOTOS COURTESY OF RAMESH SHUKLA

Ramesh Shukla’s new book, The UAE: 50 Years in Pictures, is available in all major bookstores across the UAE

Anand Raj OK

Anand Raj OK

PHOTOS COURTESY OF RAMESH SHUKLA