Well-known designer J.J. Valaya talks of his love affair with the camera and how it led to his latest show, Decoded Paradox.

As designations go, this is not a new one for the man considered one of India's finest and most enduring designers of haute couture. JJ (as he is fondly called) has been trigger happy with the camera for decades now; shooting his own creations on models, to get the photos exactly as he wants them.

“But that,” he laughs almost dismissing his earlier dalliances with the camera, “is just the base camp for the journey I have started on”. The journey will lead JJ into an enviable place, a double life. “Couture is my life”, he affirms, “but Art is my passion.”

Early start

His involvement with art began when he was 11 and still in school; he created a painting with oil on a huge canvas. “The principal still has the painting,” he adds. Perhaps the fact that JJ won the best calligraphist and best artist prizes for seven years in a row kept the passion alive, though dormant, while he moved to studying for a degree in commerce.

When “fashion happened”, like a love suddenly blooming, he thought it was a link to his old love for art. Getting a camera on barter from a friend, JJ shot his own campaigns, as “one way to keep sticking my foot in”.

Twenty years as a fashion designer is a long time; long enough to whet his appetite for newer fancies. The excitement presented itself as an idea that could use his talent for photography and combine it with his familiarity for creating couture wear.

“Everyone is doing so much in art,” JJ says, “and trying various mediums. Painters are doing sculpture, and so on. I told myself, let me start with taking photos, then let me see where it leads me. There is no reason to believe I will stop here, with this medium.”

“I feel like a babe in the woods,” he says of his foray into photography, his dimple showing again. “Everything is so fresh and new.”

Of course having a name and some recognition has helped, and he was able to put his plan for his shoot into action without too much of a hassle. Which was important as he placed his photos in the thick of things, in the hustle and bustle of Delhi.

JJ had a clear idea of what he wished to do as a photographer. He envisioned a series of photographs that had Delhi as the backdrop. “That is because Delhi is the city that has made me, I am emotional about the city,” he explains. His love for couture helped do the rest.

“I researched my subject for four to five months, to understand the clothes that were worn 500 years back,” he says. “I created the garments, and found my subjects, and was ready to go!”

Choosing subjects

The subjects were mostly ordinary people, chosen for their looks, their attitude or stance. Among them, a cutter from his studio, a master tailor, a child , a pair of girls, some very old people with ‘ interesting faces' and of course a few celebrities, like Aman Nath of the Neemrana group; the very camera-shy fellow designer Rajesh Pratap Singh; and Subodh Gupta, the dancer.

The research included the look, the right jewellery and footwear to match exactly the 500-year-old designs of clothes. The actual shooting was more difficult.

“I placed the subject in unplanned surroundings and worked to make the picture seamless, and not look out of place or foolish. It was tough, we could not take more than two to three frames, from which I would have to select the one I thought worked the best,” he says.

“Of course when there is so much happening around you, everything is a distraction, and to get the drape, the look, the expression, the mood, the lighting and the composition just right was something of a task!”

JJ used a Canon digital camera. That, he says, was his only concession to modern technology. There was absolutely no post-production. “I believe in the purest approach to composition and detail,” he adds. “What you see is how it was!”

JJ launched the exhibition in Delhi, and followed it up with a two-day event in Mumbai. Titled Decoded Paradox the 24 black and white pictures of men, women and children in regal robes and majestic finery shot against monuments or crowded squares juxtaposed the feudal history of a city with that which lives in the here and now of the crowded present. “The paradox comes through in fitting the two disparate periods into a single frame,” as JJ puts it.

Collectible editions

Astutely, knowing the favour his work will find with fans and fashion followers, JJ has created collectible editions of six portraits, complete with certification. He hopes to take the exhibition travelling internationally and is in contact with curators and art collectors. And of course the material is so right to be compiled as a coffee table book.

It's the beginning of a journey, and an exciting one. “This show is already in the past, “he says. “I am already thinking what to do next in the field of art. I plan to do one show a year. It could be painting next time, or mixed media. But sooner or later, I will get back to the camera… Maybe I will explore Mumbai next… ”

That is a paradox we will have to wait to decode!