Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu's office is a museum of papers, magazines, slides, cinema, radio and TV advertisement material. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal / Gulf News

Dubai: The walls of the nearly four-decade-old building in Baniyas Square have many stories to tell – of days gone by, of people who lived there, and traders who made a living from this bustling street. However, many of these stories pale before the ones narrated by Ramesh Babu in his small office.

Babu, 77, is an entrepreneur who came to Dubai 50 years ago and started an advertising company when he saw the first English newspaper and realised there was room for his passion to grow.

“Look at this,” he says, “this is an advertisement I conceived and drew up with my own hands.” Babu has saved them all. Filed copies of Gulf News and other newspapers from the 1980s, magazines from yesteryears, and pamphlets that he helped draw up fill his room. The office is a museum of papers, magazines, slides, cinema, radio and TV advertisement material.

“I am proud to say that I helped design some of the first advertisements published in Gulf News and other English and Arabic newspapers in the Gulf,” he says. “I used my design and drawing skills to bring out the best in the products that were displayed.”

Early years

Babu’s early years were spent in Kannur, Kerala, where he discovered a taste for drawing and design while working in a textile company. His trip to Dubai itself is a story. His brother, an Ayurvedic doctor in Kannur, mentioned Babu’s desire to travel to a patient, who then made all arrangements for Babu’s journey and ensured he was taken care of upon arrival.

So why Dubai?

“I just wanted to come to Dubai,” Babu says. “I thought about it as a place where I could buy luxury goods. It just stuck in my head. Also, I had a business mentality and wanted to make it big. I knew Dubai would give me the opportunity to turn my dreams into reality.”

Ramesh Babu Letraset
Babu explains how he used Letraset - sheets of transfer lettering to set words on an advertisement in different fonts and designs. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal / Gulf News

Babu arrived in Dubai on April 16, 1974, after a four-day voyage by ship from Mumbai (then Bombay). He is excited to tell his story because he is retelling history – 50 years of hard work that helped him establish himself in an industry that was in its nascent stages.

In the initial months, Babu worked odd jobs to gain a toehold in the city. Then he got a break in an advertising company, where he was asked to draw up a campaign for an ice-cream company during his interview. “The work I did eventually ran as the advertisement campaign for the ice-cream company.”

A new beginning

After learning the ropes, Babu started his own company in Ajman in 1977, Nayana International, which was rebranded as Eye Advertising in 1982. He then started another advertising company in Dubai, Al Oyoon Advertising in 1992, named after his father who was an eye physician. That’s when he moved his office to the current address in Baniyas Square.

Before computers became part of our lives, advertisements for print media had to be designed by hand. This is where Babu’s expertise came into play. He painstakingly worked on drawings and created ads needed by companies, using calligraphy pens and gadgets that are not found any more.

“This is a spray gun painting device,” Babu says. “I used it to paint the advertisements and label designs, and give them a particular tint.”

Ads for print, radio and cinema

Babu also created advertisements shown in movie halls, mostly open-air ones whose shows started at 8pm. “At one point in time, I did not have to pay to see any movie. I could just walk in because the staff knew I was the person who produced the advertisements.”

Eventually, ads for nearly 50 clients from Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah found their way into print, radio, TV, and cinemas.

But life was not easy. “Once after delivering advertisement slides at Sharjah Cinema, I took a share-cab to Al Khan roundabout. As it was past 8pm, there was no transport to Dubai. So I walked back home to Deira. Although it was dark and lonely, I never felt the distance because my mind was bubbling with new ideas.”

Throughout his career in the advertising industry, Babu has had very few staff, preferring to do most of the designing and running around himself. When computers came on the scene, he hired a couple of additional staff to help harness technology.

Babu’s wife and two daughters have shared in his work.

Today he looks at decades-old newspaper clippings with pride. “I can claim to be one of the pioneers in this field in the country, and this gives me immense joy. The hard work I did with my hands has paid off for many of my clients. I am very happy and proud to see them do well.”