ABU DHABI // Like thousands of his contemporaries, Saji Karunakaran waits every morning for a bus to take him from his labour camp to his workplace in Musaffah. As a rigger, he spends his day fastening equipment to oil rigs under construction for the Gulf Piping Company. At dusk, he queues to board a bus, return to the camp, take a bath, and eat dinner. But while his friends spend the day's last precious few hours chatting, watching films or shopping for essentials, Mr Karunakaran picks up his paintbrushes.
He settles on his top-bunk bed in the cramped room that he shares with five men. He mixes his colours and spends at least two hours every evening bringing to life pictures from his imagination. "There are lots of pictures in my mind," he says. "When I draw them, they come out. But drawing does not earn money, so one must work hard." He has no formal art training. Although some of the portraits, such as those of Sheikh Zayed, the late President, and Mother Teresa are created from pictures he downloads from the internet, most of the landscapes are imagined - fanciful scenes of the desert and lush gardens with blooming flowers. He discreetly signs his paintings in the lower-right corner in gold letters.
Mr Karunakaran, 39, a slight man with an impressive moustache, impressed only his friends until word spread to the company's management, who are now eager to hone his talents. Mr Karunakaran joined the company four years ago and has kept to himself, according to roommates who knew of his pastime. "He is usually in his own world," says Biju Thomas, a welder who shares a room with Mr Karunakaran. "He paints every day, and even on Fridays, and for that, there is a lot of respect for him here. Usually he is very quiet, so not many people know that he is a painter."
Pradeep Kumar Natarajan, a carpenter and a friend of Mr Karunakaran, accidentally discovered his artistry. Mr Natarajan noticed a painting of Mary with baby Jesus and asked whether he could frame it for the artist. "I've always told him to keep painting," Mr Natarajan says. After framing the painting, Mr Natarajan took it to Jacob John, the senior human resources officer of Gulf Piping. "He would still be in the shadows if it wasn't for his friend. Only three days ago, we came to know about this," Mr John says. "He came to us to get some help to exhibit some of his paintings. So I had him show me more of his paintings. Now we are keeping his collection safe in the office."
Mr Karunakaran earns Dh1,700 a month, of which he sends Dh700 home to Kerala to support his parents. He is the only son of five children. Two of his four sisters have married in the time that he has worked in Abu Dhabi. "Automatically, he becomes the supporter of the family," Mr John says. "First, he has to get [his sisters] married, then he has to take care of his parents." Mr Karunakaran is not married, but he hopes to be by next year.
He is from the coastal city of Trivandrum, where he attempted his first painting when he was 12. He ran home after watching a sunset on the beach and painted it, first sketching the sunset, and then reaching for oil paints. "My parents told me not waste my time and to do my studies," he says. But he continued painting through school, even after he enrolled in a vocational institute for industrial training and learned electrical works.
He spends a good part of his savings on art supplies. He estimates that he has spent Dh2,000 on seven paintings. Four others are still to be finished. He prefers a shop on Electra Street and has learned some aspects of art from books. He has three. Last year, on holiday in Kerala, he bought Easy to Draw: Animals and Easy to Draw: Human Figures. His most lavish purchase has been The Fundamentals of Drawing: A Complete Professional Course for Artists, for Dh75 from a Lulu supermarket.
Although he wants to read next about how to mix colours, his paintings already play with shades of light. There is a sombre aspect to his work, which stands out in relation to the serenity of the setting. "I feel self-satisfaction because what I see in my mind, when it comes on the canvas and then it is complete, it gives me satisfaction," Mr Karunakaran says. "But if I could do anything in the world I would become an artist or work in a job that will help me grow as an artist. But really, now, I only dream of having an exhibition of my work."