After turning off Golf Course Road into Magnolias, the gated community in Gurgaon’s Sector 42, I step into a lobby that seems to gently dust the city off me. Art-lined interiors keep me company as I wait for the elevator to transport me to the 15th floor. By the time I arrive, the everyday has been left far behind.
It’s an uncharacteristically hot and sunny afternoon, but you wouldn’t know it, once inside the year-old home designed and furnished by JJ Valaya. Cool cave-like corridors lead me into the belly of the home. I’m asked to wait in the living room; it’s a good thing, too, because I need time to take it all in.
Every adjective ever used to describe Valaya as a couturier is manifested in the decor here. ‘Grand’, ‘luxurious’, ‘regal’ even. It’s a cornucopia of objets d’art that, at first glance, can be a little intimidating. But as I sink into the custom-designed—and surprisingly comfortable—sofa, I discover that there are visual stories embedded in all of its dramatically spotlit nooks and corners. Curiouser and curiouser, I mutter to Chang, the family’s pet Pekingese, who—whether by intent or happenstance, I’m not sure—is a delightful design match with the interiors.
At a massive 7,000 square feet, the space is a perfect foil for Valaya’s trademark maximalism. In its original state, the apartment was an empty “rectangular box” with an undefined floor plan. The rooms were custom-designed later. It now has five bedrooms, dining and living areas, a bar-lounge and study, besides a kitchen and bathrooms. When Valaya’s wife Meghna walks in, she recommends I step out into the balcony. In a city that holds you in a death grip of smoke and pollution, this is an oasis, offering an extraordinary view of open skies overlooking a perfectly manicured 18-hole golf course. Despite the vast outdoors, the balcony has a sense of romance and intimacy, and Meghna reveals it is where they do much of their entertaining during Delhi’s short winter. (Later, Valaya will tell me: “You should see it when it rains!”)
At the appointed hour, the man himself arrives and we return to the dimly lit interiors. Straight off the bat, he declares his impatience with all that is “unsurprising” and insists it’s a betrayal of the Indian legacy, to mindlessly chase foreign notions of minimalism. As he sweeps his hands expansively across the room, I believe him. Often, Indian largesse is misunderstood as crass, but in Valaya’s careful hands it is elevated to art. There are collectibles gathered from all over the world—Chinese calligraphy and Moroccan kilims, Kashmiri dorukhas and portraits of kings. The carpet on which my dusty shoes rest is estimated to be around 500 years old.
A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
Now that we’re chatting, I realize the designer’s intent isn’t to intimidate but to delight—not just through the objects themselves, but also through how they’re arranged. “Good design is not about putting things perfectly together; it’s about whether it speaks to the person who’s going to live there,” he says. My curiosity is piqued, and as Chang gently snores beneath the exquisite fossil-stone- topped centre table, I want to know more. Valaya points to the screen dividing the dining and living areas.
An ultra-modern geometric piece splashed with black and ivory, aside from dividing the spaces, acts as a backdrop for a trio of antique Chinese vases. Flanking the sideboard bearing the vases is a pair of whimsical high-back chairs, which he describes as “aviation meets art deco”. Prompted by him, I locate signatures like the skyscraper-like backrest, and studded metallic arms (I won’t lie; my knowledge of both elements comes from films such as The Aviator and The Great Gatsby). I’m exhilarated because I’ve just cracked Valaya’s design code—paradox.
These can be seen, in subtle form, throughout the house—in juxtapositions that appear counterintuitive at first, but work on many levels. Framed Urdu inscriptions are arranged, it seems, to highlight not words but the shapes those words make. Books are arranged on shelves, he admits, not necessarily to be read.
“I revel in contradictions,” Valaya explains, and I recognize in him a kindred spirit who also revels in drama. The sense of theatre can be seen even in private spaces like the bedroom, where Kremlin-esque domes sit atop the headboard, which is also a bookshelf. Hanging over the 12-seater stone dining table is an elaborately carved door panel, cradling candle-like lamps that create an ethereal glow. He reveals why he prefers low lighting. “When you create dark corners and highlights, you create dimensions. And dimensions leave a lot of room for interpretation.” I suspect that low lighting is also a comfort to Valaya who, despite his celebrity, remains a ercely private person.
REINVENTION, NOT REVIVAL
Valaya shares this home with his wife and two daughters (and of course, Chang). However, aside from family photos, there aren’t many signs of a typical family home. Admittedly, he hasn’t let them contribute much to the decor, except for the children’s rooms, where he has not interfered. It occurs to me that this house is designed to take visitors on a tour—one that’s guided by Valaya himself. A self-titled “nomadic royal”, Valaya consistently seeks “a sense of culture, of history, of effort”. While he collects antiques from forgotten bylanes of Europe, he also commissions traditional craftsmen to render masterpieces like the oor-to-ceiling Nathdwara Shrinathji painting (“He’s the coolest god we have.”), which is the first thing that greets visitors when they step into this house. Arranged on the coffee table in the balcony is a series of damascene daggers from Udaipur—remnants of a near-extinct art. Just as I begin to wonder about the museum-like quality of the home, he quips: “Revival is for government offcials.”
More recently, Valaya has reinvented his artistic profile by unveiling his alter ego as a photographer. Frames from his photo series, Decoded Paradoxes, offer insight into a rich life. Also of note is his second photo series, The Soul in the Space—his ode to Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh—which sets the tone in his private study, arguably the quietest room in the house, and perhaps, most reflective of his inner life.
As my tour comes to an end, I realize that this isn’t just a home designed for its inhabitants, but an offering to the curious, and the aesthete. “I like to give a short, crisp explanation and then leave the field open. Go, have fun, discover something new and let me know about it when you do,” says the designer expansively, gesturing at his space layered with mysteries and magic.