AHALYA chats with VENKAT NILAKANTAN this week about toy tea sets, luxury and identity, in the fourth of the ongoing series
“I believe that the idea of luxury, of belonging, of being happy on a daily basis, of comfort in the mind, is the only luxury that matters finally”
“I realise with hindsight, I would never do anything that I can’t retrieve value from. Whatever form that value had for me”
Six am at Chennai airport; bleary eyed and feeling grey, I’mtrying to locate my travel partner. I don’t have to look too hard. Standing still in every sense of the term, in a draped column of vivid Kanjeevaram silk, in sharp focus amid the blurred monochrome motion of everything else, Ahalya S is visually a constant.
So when did this “template” take form? Her earliest recall of style was in the deliberate elegance of Alarmel Valli, who trained her in dance.Valli’s style has stayed an inspiration to Ahalya since then.
As a child, she mentions a penchant for an eclectic combination of interests: playtime tea sets (“I had tea sets in probably every material”), a fascination for the pageantry and miracles in Tamil mythological and religious films (“my brother would despair for me”), and a love of temples (“it was the very depth of things one felt there”).
A self-confessed risk taker, Ahalya’s entrepreneurial streak started early, when, as a schoolgirl, she would paint on cards and sell them to friends’ families. This came with a realisation that she enjoyed creating something of her own — and creating jewellery was the first manifestation of that as an adult.
Her ethos on the retail spaces she curates makes a strong point — having a luxury retail space that detracts from the product range, or overwhelms it, is counter productive to the key aim of the business: selling the product. “If a space is distracting, unfamiliar, or perhaps visually challenging, it’s nice, but sometimes one can’t get past it. I would like someone to come in, appreciate the space, but then focus on the product.”
Her instantly identifiable visual image is carefully honed, too: it’s about a gravitas, a constancy with her audience, which allows people to “anchor with who she is”. Identity is, for her, the first step in the exercise of intelligence. Style, she goes on, is the definition, knowing and owning of one’s identity. She talks about perspective: “To stick to your point of view and to know that’s how it looks from where you stand, is clarity. To understand what somebody else sees is empathy. You can’t confuse, but must acknowledge the two.”
In sharp contrast though,is her choice of comfort clothing at home: shorts and a tee. I’m having some trouble imagining the person in front of me, so precisely turned out, lounging around, so dressed down. I’m not alone. Ahalya recalls with some bemusement, when her husband Ajit Shetty and she first moved into their apartment, curious neighbours, confused by the sartorial polar extremes, enquired of her cook if Ahalya had a younger sister visiting.
“It’s like knowing someone, right? Every time they look different, you are getting to know them all over again, in a sense. While that’s nice on a social level, in a work situation, you want that person to be a constant — when things are changing so dramatically around you all the time, it’s nice to anchor yourself to the idea of who one is “
>> Next week: shifting traditions
hair & make up support: Pinky Lohar, STYLESMITH