The regal & the real

Published : Apr 08, 2011 00:00 IST

Sumant Jayakrishnan, scenographer, at Ugrasen Ki Baoli, Hailey Road. - PHOTOPGRAPHS BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sumant Jayakrishnan, scenographer, at Ugrasen Ki Baoli, Hailey Road. - PHOTOPGRAPHS BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Designer JJ Valaya uses the subjects of his photographs as performers in a mock-regal charade.

WHEN I received an invitation to the preview of the first exhibition of large photographs by the fashion designer JJ Valaya and the launch of Decoded Paradox, a coffee-table book of these with an introduction by the heritage hotelier Aman Nath, I knew the art form we were about to see would smack not only of celebrity culture but also postmodern practices and techniques in art. It would, in fact, be a true representative of the 21st century and the glittering Delhi of today. Indeed, it was in character that Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and his wife, the economist Eshar Judge Ahluwalia, were there. So it was not just an evocation of postmodernism but also of post-reform economics.

Expectedly, the art of couturier was iconic, with the model as the coat hanger for designer clothes. But here the photographer uses the subjects of his photographs as performers in a mock-regal charade, rather like the series of Cindy Sherman's photographs of herself as a mock Hollywood heroine or Pushpamala in various photographic mock-ups of herself as superwoman or as the subject of Raja Ravi Varma's paintings. In this show, one was reminded of the photographs of the 19th and early 20th century Raj photographers. But the ambience they are taken in reflects the present. Also, the costume designs are Valaya's creations, while the jewellery the mock-nobles wear is that of Art Karat, and Glenfiddich whisky has sponsored the show in keeping with today's corporate usage.

True, the largest number of photographs are those of celebrities representing present-day icons of Shining India such as the high-value artist Subodh Gupta, the heritage hotelier Aman Nath, the social activist and socialite Nafisa Ali Sodhi, artist Malavika Tiwari, dancer Navtej Johar, fashion stylist and current title-holder of the best legs in town Pernia Qureshi, model-turned-actor Rahul Dev, model and performer Pallavi Roy, scenographer Sumant Jayakrishnan, event manager Sylvia Qureshi, hotelier S.S.H. Rehman, graphic designer Zoe Collington, designers Neera Nath and Rajesh Pratap Singh, actress Neesha Singh, and entertainer and poet Nishant Peralta.

But it is to Valaya's credit that he carries the exercise further. He photographs not only relatives and children of friends, such as Philomina (Ali) Torresan, Ananda Gupta, Arvind Singh Bisht, Pia and Ajit Sodhi and Aryan Gopalakrishnan, but goes beyond the celebrity circle with chauffeur Laxmi Malakar, master cutter Keith Macleod, master embroiderer Mohammad Habib ul Rehman, and pattern-tracer Prabhat Kumar Roy.

This fusion of celebrities with those who people the infrastructure they perform on gives his work a cross-border authenticity in a society becoming increasingly distanced as neoliberal policies siphon funds and resources to those on top at the relative cost of those who are at the bottom.

Valaya looks at them both in the same frame, though. His photographs may be formal poses like those of the legendary Raja Deen Dayal, but their setting betrays a far broader concern. They are set in many different places, ranging from the Sultanate ruins such as the Qutb complex, Siri Fort and the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya to the Mughal Purana Qila, Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid. Then his camera pans out to the dhobi ghat at Hailey Road, a weathered wall at Tolstoy Marg, bamboo sellers at Andheria Mod, the cane furniture shops at Ghitormi, a tea stall at Bhogal, a hoarding of Krishna at a temple in Sarojini Nagar, Ambedkar's statue at Chanakyapuri, a demolished structure at M.G. Road, a building being constructed in Malviya Nagar, beside the flyover on Panchkuian Road, a dhaba on National Highway 8, an automobile junkyard at Mayapuri, a wrestling akhara in Ayanagar, the camel market near Jama Masjid and a slum in the hillock at Vasant Vihar, among others.

However, it is not only the places that bring to us snatches of the dialogue of many facets of contemporary Delhi, it is also the people. We have a scene of Ugrasen Ki Baoli with the bandwallas, immortalised by Krishen Khanna in so many of his paintings, playing on its steps; wrestlers in an akhara; and people at street-side stalls, tea shops, in junkyards, at bus stops and in by-lanes in the city. Almost nothing is left out, including pavement philosophers, barbers, street children and mendicants. Nor are the animals missing. We have dogs, oxen, camels, and even an elephant. But I missed the horses, the donkeys and the monkeys.

There are also many modes of transport from pushcarts to bicycles, motorcycles and cars. But one does miss those overloaded palaces on four wheels, the trucks and buses, not to speak of a peek at the Metro. But then art says only as much as it wants to and expects one to think of the things left out for oneself.

The tongue-in-cheek, make-believe world of the elite is rooted into the soil it springs from with a postmodernist ploy that plunges into the process of creation of these images in a section of the book called Behind the Paradox. Here we see the icons and environments of the formal shots in disarray or in the process of coming together and drifting apart. So one realises that there is a lot of life and motion that went into creating the icons. And the mock-nobles and corporate promoters of art owe much more to the people than they admit. It is to the credit of Valaya that he is able to integrate the luxurious world of the elite and the fashionable without ignoring the ground beneath their feet. Indeed, it is the presence of that ground that gives these photographs their peculiar insight of confronting the theatrical with the real.

There is, however, another element that comes into play which is not recognised or is obscured by postmodernism. It is history. The monuments, makeshift stalls, even the slums and markets have a history, as do the people. From this perspective, there are the play-acting celebrities and others pulled into the charade, but these icons lack the quality to convince us in the same way as the bandwallas, the wrestlers and the street people do.

This is not surprising. Shining India does not convince us as easily as an India rich in resources but with a vast mass of the poor unable to access the wealth that is theirs. In the same way, one cannot find the same honesty in the tarted-up icons as in the people in the background or on the street. It is rather like the difficulty we have in accepting the present-day elite at face value and in the same light as that of the national movement, despite them being far less theatrical than the inheritors of the Republic today.

This brings us to the question then of whether this presentation was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. I believe it was, as the totality has been presented to us from the artist's eye-view.

Valaya, in fact, states: Today's Delhi (is) in the throes of modernisation and remodelling, revelling (sometimes quite immodestly) in the euphoria of an economically charged environment, also shows that its magic lives on in its streets. It is an evolving avatar of a future city that few notice as they drive across it every day. It boasts of a parallel existence for millions of people as well as offers dramatic views of the old and the new.

It often amazes me that the same roads that were once reserved for kings and queens to ride on are now common to the average man. In some way or other, we embrace the past by simply walking on the same soil as some of the greatest in our history have. This is a thought that perhaps a lot of us don't even realise. My attempt, thus, is to infuse the two separate periods of time into a single frame, creating an absorbing paradox interpreted by combining a staged setting (based upon the city's feudal legacy) with the reality of the Delhi that lives on and off the roads today.

This view, with its focus on the people on the street, and not the mock-models of the 21st century, is what gives this form of art its strength and its authenticity in history. It also reminds us that it was the people of Delhi and the villages around it, often brought in as slaves and bonded craftsmen, and now, migrants from all over the country, who are the lifeblood of the city and its future. They may appear only in the background of these photographs as farmers, tribal people and ordinary citizens appear in Mughal miniatures, but they will come centre stage as they did in our modern art from the hands of artists such as Jamini Roy, Ram Kinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose, Somenath Hore, Chittaprasad, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain, to name only a few. Valaya paints the picture of a watershed where a hollow nobility is confronted by the real future of the city they lord over, like the writing on the wall. Let us read it and rejoice.

Suneet Chopra is an art critic and writer.
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