JJ Valaya doesn’t believe in doing things small. For anyone who has followed his work as a fashion designer for close to three decades, this is no surprise, and yet it still is surprising to see his larger-than-life and steeped-in-luxury vision translated into photographs. On 1 December, Valaya opened his new photography show, ‘Lalaari: Conversations with the Universe’, in Delhi. Lalaari is the Punjabi word for dyer, as the show combines his passion for textiles along with his interest in photography.
He made his debut in 2011 with Decoded Paradox, a show that was inspired by royal portraiture and was set in Delhi. His second show was a stark contrast to the first, without any human element and inspired by architecture. For this third show, he has returned to his enduring theme of royalty. The photographs are staged portraits, steeped in Indian aesthetic, traditional and modern at the same time, each image is transfixing.
He met us at his office in Delhi, sitting in front of a huge painting of a Peshwa king, he looked every bit as royal as his subjects.
Photography seems to bring all your interests together. Is that why you keep exploring it?
I have a very close affinity with the decorative arts, I think of the Russian icons and our Tanjores, that’s a beautiful era which is disappearing. I wanted to do a modern spin on decorative art, and I ended up using all disciplines that I indulge in, textiles, my role as a furniture designer, my role as an embroiderer, and then of course with photography as the base.
You have gone back to portraits for this show, why is that?
My favourites are portraiture and architecture, people and spaces, they intrigue me always. This show comes out of a very simple approach to a very complex subject, and the subject being people. I just love people, I sit with them and keep staring at them, half the time I’m grateful I’m in the fashion business and at least I can stare at people. This exhibition was really about me trying to get closer to understanding people and see if I can interpret that through a medium. It’s a very basic form of portraying a person in front of a simple backdrop, the way it used to be done in the good old days.
How did you choose your subjects?
The models are all different people, some are people I know, some are people I found interesting, and some are people who work for me. This is not a socialite shoot, while there may be people you recognise, the purpose is not to highlight only people you know. There’s also my master (tailor) in here who has been with me for 27 years, he’s one of my royals. There’s also the art curator Amin Jaffer and the twin sisters who’ve climbed Mount Everest. There’s no pattern. I spent a fair amount of time with these people, asked them to be brutally honest with me. I’ve been meditating for 19 years and that has helped me to understand people to an extent. I can sense people’s energies and how they are intuitively, and I’ve tried to translate that into imagery.
Why did you dress them in royal clothes?
I love all things royal and larger than life, and I really can’t put my finger on it. It comes from my past life perhaps. When I got into fashion, all I wanted to do was create clothes which are stunning and glorious, I just see everybody as royalty, I look at a person and start slotting that person into some avatar. I think to exist, you must think you’re royalty, that you’re exalted and that’s the metaphoric idea. After all, we’re in the business of psychology, we’re not in the business of fashion when we design clothes. We have to understand people and see if we can change the way they seem themselves, to me the clothes are the canvas and the person is the subject.
How do you trace back your interest in photography?
When I was in college, I had an Olympus camera and I was always taking pictures and enjoyed it a lot. But then I got into NIFT and the commercial aspects of life, but even then all along I was taking pictures. In 2011, I decided let’s give it a go and my first show happened. I invited art critics for it because I wanted honest feedback and there was an acceptance that this was good quality work.
You have been taking photographs on your phone and publishing travel memoirs, do you separate art photography from phones?
I shudder to think about selfie culture. But I take pictures all the time, I have 98,000 images on my phone. When I travel I shoot, then I come back and publish it. The beauty of photography is the decisive moment, as Henri Cartier Bresson said, and the most beautiful moments in life are totally unrehearsed, so I should be ready all the time. This is what smartphones have given you, you’re forever armed, taking pictures all the time. I intend to take out a book, called Etcetera, based on my everyday photography.
What’s next for you?
I took a sabbatical for some time. I was bored of what I was doing. I am now working on my most ambitious project, a new space in Delhi that will be called The World of Valaya, which will open next year. It will be the new benchmark of luxury in the country. It will have all three things I indulge in, fashion, luxury interiors, and my photography, all in one place.
The exhibition is on till December 15 at Stir Gallery, Chattarpur Farms, New Delhi