The Universe Within

Pallavi Chattopadhyay
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JJ Valaya

Popular for her muscular body, Bani Judge, a fitness model, TV presenter and former Roadies contestant, stands proud and tall in noted designer JJ Valaya’s photographs. Having once harboured a dream to photograph 100 most charismatic people in the world, Valaya captures her dressed in an attire she has rarely been seen in — a sari — as she holds a weight training bar without any bars. Her arms are filled with a sea of rose tattoos. Then there is a close-up of her with a tiny ball piercing through her lower lip. Holding bestselling author Lang Leav’s book The Universe of Us, with the image of a little girl on the cover, this frame exudes a captivating energy. Many similar portraits breathe life into Valaya’s latest exhibition “Lalaari: Conversations with the Universe”, represented by Threshold gallery, at Vis a Vis gallery in Chattarpur, New Delhi.

“The book is symbolic, especially the girl’s image, because Bani had a lot of stories from childhood and I saw this little girl in her. That little girl saw and experienced many things,” says Valaya. The show features his master tailor of 27 years and two of his house helps, one lending a warm smile and the other a rather unwelcome sceptical look. Valaya calls his latest offering a study of people. “This show is an interpretation of certain people, not selected on any parameters but purely by how I felt in terms of their energies. It’s about how I see them and how the world sees them.”

jj valaya, jj valaya photo exhibition, jj valaya work, jj valaya exhibition Lalaari, jj valaya Delhi exhibition, indian express

Picture at JJ Valaya's exhibition.

Guinness World Record holders and twins Tashi and Nungshi Malik from Dehradun, who have touched the tallest mountains of the seven continents (Seven Summits) and were the first twins to scale Mt Everest. They stand with an empty frame devoid of any certificate chronicling their climb in one photograph. Valaya leaves the viewer with an interesting question: “Do they need more certificates? Maybe not. They already have had their thrill of fun.”

Noelle Kadar, who has served as the International Director for the India Art Fair, when asked by Valaya about that one superpower she wish she had, answered, “I would love to be able to heal”. Her hand, therefore, rests as if she were showering her blessings in one of the frames.

An Iranian lady, who Valaya met through his nephew, stands as the perfect representation of a vagabond and a nomad. She poses confidently, in her semi-naked body replete with tattoos and piercings that run through her gums and lips. Valaya, founder member of Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), says, “I have never imagined a Muslim woman from Iran being so rebellious.”

There’s the always fashionably dressed London-based art historian Amin Jaffer, who has chaired prestigious collections at museums across the world, including a stint as a curator for Victoria and Albert Museum. In this show, he sits on a bed of cushions, looking resplendent in Mughal-style jewellery on his head. It’s an instant reminder of Aladdin happily galloping around the city’s blue skies in his flying carpet. Valaya dresses his subjects as royals for a reason: “All my subjects are dressed as royals so that everybody feels exotic. It is very important that one feels good about themselves, as it reflects in our relationships and equation with others. Self-doubt and insecurity are the basis of anything negative that comes about in our life.”

jj valaya, jj valaya photo exhibition, jj valaya work, jj valaya exhibition Lalaari, jj valaya Delhi exhibition, indian express

Picture at JJ Valaya's exhibition.

Valaya chose the show’s title as ‘Lalaari’, a Punjabi word for dyer. He says, “A dyer gets a mere white cloth, and he dyes it into yellow, green, blue, or even jet black. The colours you add to life, is what your life will become.” The striking image of Delhi-born Aviva Baig, a football enthusiast, who has travelled the country while playing at national level, holds a football under her feet as she poses in the six-yard traditional Indian attire. “This girl is tiny and she plays football. When trying to portray her, I imagined her lifting her sari to play the ball. It is a very contradictory sort of image.” Valaya shows his love for textiles by surrounding Baig’s portrait with antique jamawar textile, interspersed with unicorns drawn on embroidered linen. “All of us have this parallel existence. We live in our dreams to a large extent,” Valaya says.

Son of an army brigadier, Valaya calls himself a ‘fauji kid’, who had a penchant for painting and drawing as a child. After finishing BCom (Hons) from Panjab University, and doing a year-and-half of chartered accountancy, the creative spirit in him revolted. In 1988, his uncle introduced him to the country’s first fashion institute, National Institute of Fashion Technology, in Delhi. “It was love at first sight and that’s how it all began,” he says.

The exhibition is at Vis a Vis gallery, 2, North Dr, Block C, Westend DLF Chattarpur Farms, till December 24