With Rs.55 in his pocket, little food in a bag, barely enough to last him through the five-day long voyage on a boat from Bombay to Sharjah, a Rolleicord camera clutched close to his chest, Ramesh Shukla came to Sharjah in 1965 with a dream to make it big one day.
Today Shukla is a success story, but it was only three years after arriving in Sharjah that he got his first big break. Popularly referred to as the ‘royal photographer’, this famous lens man made a mark for himself with his amazing clicks – whether they were capturing the life of a common man who lived with grace and honour in the undeveloped Trucial States of Oman, candid and formal pictures of the royals and government leaders, or the changing landscape of the UAE through the decades. Shukla’s photos are all over Dubai today. It’s his photography you’ll see in Metro stations and in the Etihad Museum.The book and the exhibition both will showcase previously unseen photography of the late leaders Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
Shukla is releasing his eight book today in collaboration with the Etihad museum at a photography exhibition titled ‘Founding Fathers Exhibition’.
The book and the exhibition both will showcase previously unseen photography of the late leaders Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
Ahead of the launch we met the famous photographer who essayed his journey in the UAE and shared some of his amazing clicks through the decades in the UAE.
“I had a tough childhood. But I had a dream – a dream to be a photographer. Who would imagine a boy in his early 20s living hand-to-mouth in Ahmedabad, would step out of his comfort zone and travel to a foreign land for a living. But I did it – only because I had a dream and wanted to realise it,” he said.
Shukla arrived in a boat named ‘Dwaraka’ (there were only four boats bringing passengers from Mumbai to Sharjah back then and this was one of them).
“After a gruelling voyage on the boat, I was exhausted. When the boat anchored onshore I stepped out and found a shaded place to sleep. I slept for hours like a baby only to be woken up by a customs official.”
A land of culture and beauty
Gulf News met Shukla inside his Four Season Gallery studio in Karama and we are awestruck by the beautiful pictures he has captured.
His first break-through came in 1968 at the first Sharjah camel race. “I was a freelance photographer. My friend asked me to click pictures of the event. I bought a cycle costing Rs.18 just for the race. I made the trip from Dubai to Sharjah on my cycle. I cannot imagine this now. But that is how life was decades ago.”
“The brief given to me was to click pictures of the ‘Shaikhs’ attending the race. I was really excited and looked every bit the shutterbug on the job.”
“I was a freelance photographer. That night I went home and developed the film. Next morning I cycled back to the race and showed some of the pictures I had taken. The late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan was impressed and he congratulated me on my work. He signed on one of my pictures and said, you are ‘fannan’ (an artist). My happiness knew no bounds. That is how my work slowly became recognised and rest is history as they say,” Shukla smiled with excitement.
"No one had any idea back then that the UAE would become what it is today and I am so happy I was able to record life as it were in the past through my pictures. Today the UAE is very different and a record of how the country was in the past is important," Shukla recalled.
In his own words, Shukla captured the essence of life. Whether images of the founding fathers, formal, informal, Bedouins and how they lived, photographs of a changing landscape of the Trucial States and later the UAE, this lens man recorded history through his pictures.”
We found some very striking as they showed us life that we have never seen before in the UAE. Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai leading an impressive lineup of camels (1970), the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum opening the Dubai museum (1971), a man carrying water cans on his back in Nasser Square (1966), a Bedouin and his donkey resting in front of a house near Satwa (1968) or an aerial photograph he clicked of the Dubai creek (late 1960s).
Among other photographs we found one with late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum sipping a glass of tea, as well as countless images of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan clicked by Shukla.
We also loved seeing a photo of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai in uniform back in 1980 or the young Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum sitting and watching the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum receiving Eid greetings.
“The UAE was always a beautiful country and continues to be. It is nothing less than magical as to how the country developed into a modern place. I feel honoured and blessed to have been able to capture the growth of UAE. I will never stop clicking. It is what I love doing most.”