Firozpur Ka Lensman

Occasionally losing himself in the misty environs of the picturesque Dehradun, he makes his life fulfilled and fun-filled in the same breath. Unarguably India’s best ambassador of world cricket, the freewheeling-n- freelancing lensman Kamal Sharma walks down memory lane in this exclusive one-to-one with IIFL’s Sudhir Raikar.

January 23, 2014 11:58 IST | India Infoline News Service

His life story is tailor-made for a potboiler film script, thanks to the umpteen dramatic twists that have shaped every momentous turn in his life. The eldest son of a middle class LIC typist from the border town of Firzopur, his childhood rigours and escapades rhymed with the constrained opportunities of the modest backdrop. Giving company to his books out of sheer compulsion, he opened up only while playing cricket, a passion that was to shape his identity in an uncanny way in the years to come. Way back then, he was clueless and so he continued his obligatory tryst with education, initially in Firozpur’s DC Model School and later at Ludhiana’s renowned Government College from which he secured his MA in Hindi.

But all along, some calling in life was beckoning him from the mists of the unknown. “I was never my dad’s favourite child, given my dwindling academics and vague ambition. To add fuel to the fire, I did the unpardonable. I refused a LIC clerk job and instead moved to Delhi pursuing my crazy dream of doing something that would hopefully make me happy. There was no point in convincing my parents about something I myself had no idea about. So I quietly boarded the train to the Capital, armed with 100 rupees in my deep pocket.”

Thanks to a former cricketing colleague’s intervention, who had become a Railway TTE by then, his ticketless travel was officially made free of cost. Not only that, the kind TTE also housed Kamal for a fortnight in his railway quarters, the maximum time he could allow an unauthorized guest. After the initial week, he was left to fend for himself in the big city but he took the challenge by its horns.

The first job was as a travelling rickshaw salesman carrying household wares like clips, nail polish and phenyl. “I didn’t sell much but got a fair idea of Delhi’s busy lanes and by lanes.” One thing led to other and in the months and years that followed, he traded in as many items as he could lay his hands on including leather belts and T shirts. “I still remember my first sale of LEE T-shirts at Regal Cinema where I made some good money after the initial hesitation, typical of a middle class Brahmin boy with no prior experience of roadside sales. But the hard cash boosted my confidence and there was no looking back after that.”

As luck would have it, Sharma bumped into a benevolent father figure – his God sent friend, philosopher and guide – who was mighty impressed with the young lad’s tenacity and offered him a place to stay in the household for a while. Today, Sharma’s home in Dehradun has a special room for the lady of the same house, her second home in the extended family. 

Coming back to Sharma’s Delhi story, life as a trader had blossomed by now, enough to secure him his own apartment in Delhi. Marriage followed soon after and the prized tag of ‘well-settled’ was finally etched against his name. So when and why did the trader turn photographer? Well, that’s a Goosebumps tale for sure.

One fine day, Sharma delivered a whole consignment of leather belts after which he was to head towards Mussorie. The purchasing party requested Sharma to collect the money in the evening but Sharma was short of time. Just then, his eyes fell on a Zenith camera with a lens alongside and he causally asked for its price. Before both parties realized, the barter had happened: camera and lens exchanged for the belts. Little did Sharma know that the C of camera would eventually connect him to the C of Cricket, but at that moment, he was overtly thrilled with the bizarre barter.

At Mussorie, he clicked snaps of a honeymoon couple on their request and to his utter dismay, his photographs were profusely appreciated by the couple and their friends. Many more clicks happened and Sharma made good money in the bargain. The accidental skill and the unexpected fortune now drew him closer to the camera as also his other passion in life: Cricket. The rest of course is history. 

The year was 1996. Sharma was covering the West Zone Vs North Zone Duleep Trophy match at Delhi’s Firoz Shah Kotla. Introduced by his friend Bharati Vij as a budding photographer, he photographed Ajay Jadeja and Vikram Rathore. Not only did the overjoyed duo order 100 copies, the photographs were published on the front page of Nav Bharat Times with due credit. In his obvious excitement, Sharma bought every single copy available at the local newspaper stand. That was also the time his daughter was born making this event even more special. 

Soon after, he clicked Sanjay Manjrekar and Salil Ankola who were equally mesmerised. Sharma refused the money they offered and instead made another barter request: 15 minutes of Sachin Tendulkar’s time for a photo shoot. Both agreed and parted ways. Sharma had no idea that his request would bear fruit in Sri Lanka in the most unbelievable fashion. The venue was Hotel Taj Samudra. As the master blaster proceeded towards the lift, he was stopped by a burly photographer for a quick shoot session. The maestro politely refused and the lift doors closed but not before Sharma managed to hand over his visiting card etched with his customary sticker on the back side.

As Sharma was grieving over the lost opportunity, the lift doors opened and Hey Presto! The little master walks out and his soft voice declares “I have seen this sticker somewhere” Sharma was quick to brief him on his historic interaction with Manjrekar to which Sachin recalled Manjerkar’s good word in good time. What followed was an exclusive photo shoot that marked the start of a special, lasting relationship between the two. Sharma’s life had taken its most decisive turn. The Midas touch of the master made him a celebrity photographer overnight but more important, Sharma never took undue advantage of the privilege. No wonder, he’s the family Lensman of cricketers and sportsmen across the globe. Australia, West Indies, Pakistan, South Africa or Sri Lanka –name the player, you’ll find Kamal Sharma as the prized common factor. Tendulkar or Lara, Tiger Woods or Jeev Milkha Singh, Wasim or Akhtar, Warne or Murali, Kallis or Rhodes…Kamal Sharma is everybody’s favourite. 

More significant than his celebrity status is his unique contribution to sport. Kamal Sharma is the first photographer to lend grace and dignity (not just glamour) to cricket photography in India where, for long, a snap of a sweat-covered sportsman was considered absolutely normal. Glitz was the sole prerogative of the film world. Sharma transformed sport photography into fine art which has helped the aspirants on the field to have a field day today.

Secondly, by forging genuinely enduring relationships with cricketers across the globe, he’s proved one of the best ambassadors of the sport as Pak cricketer-turned commentator Rameez Raja fondly calls him. Kamal’s art – an intricate mix of observation and improvisation - has won awards and accolades from the world over. He’s been featured in the Inside Edge, Wisden, Khaleej Times and London's Daily Express. Kamal is also the pioneer of cricket photograph exhibitions in India.

Talk of real life drama and it can’t get bigger than what happened with Kamal Sharma during one of his US tours. That trip had originally happened at Wasim Akram’s behest, which incidentally gave Kamal Sharma the golden opportunity to cover the US Open. During his spare time, he did an overnight extensive shoot of the magnificent Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre without having the faintest idea that he was the last Lensman ever to do so. The very next morning, the infamous terrorist attack followed and he rushed to the spot, this time to cover whatever remained of the magnificence. In the process, he captured a second plane crashing into the tower live, the only Indian photographer to click the tower as it collapsed. What was a photographer’s delight pained him immensely as a human being, an active proponent of world peace and solidarity.

Six years back, Sharma shifted base from Delhi to Dehradun following his keen interest in nature shoots as much as to escape the hullabaloo of city life. He also wishes to pursue wildlife photography in the coming time. Given the high quality of his introspection and experimentation and his ability to think on his feet, he’s sure to win laurels in this domain as well.

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