Fear None, Respect All: In conversation with Waris Ahluwalia
Culture — 20.11.20
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own .”
Labels are a construct, and Waris is not about that. He is, though, a true multi-hyphenate, having tried many things, seemingly succeeding at all, effortlessly. His entrance into the world of cinema was too casual, infuriating to those desperately attempting to break into the business. Adored by the fashion industry, he’s technically never trained to be a jewellery designer or retailer. A bespoke cultural tastemaker, he’s also modelled, wrote for The Paris Review, travelled with Tilda Swinton, and collaborated with conservationist organisations to protect elephant populations in Asia. Most recently turning his enthusiasm for celebration and ritual into a Chelsea based tea salon, sourcing the highest quality botanicals and herbs like Shatavari root from India and rose petals from Egypt. In the existential debate between hard work and fortune, Henri Cartier-Bresson would claim, “Of course it’s all luck!” Not having a focus, saying yes to things, endless curiosity and appetite for life are what perhaps guides Waris to many marvellous adventures.
Born in Amritsar, Punjab, India in 1974 to a Sikh family, Ahluwalia is instantly recognisable with his trademark black turban that he wears as part of his faith. He doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures and views success simply as a tool that allows you to continue your work. His early influences – Marcus Aurelius, Rabindranath Tagore, Leonard Cohen, George Harrison, and Rumi – are a mix of history, romance and wisdom. Integrity over profit, love over fear, community over individualism are the mandates that Waris is passionately committed to in response to our collective unawareness of the human planetary crisis.
A country that has left by far the greatest and deepest impression on me was India – a land of beauty, myth and great splendour. It’s like no place in the world, I almost can’t explain it. Beyond being your birthplace, what do India and the notion of home mean to you?
India is the land of my birth and is ingrained in my soul. It is of course in everything I do. The Himalayas, the lush forests of the south, the Great Thar desert, Bengal tigers, the Indian elephant – a richness far beyond anything man-made. It has and continues to inspire my work. Whether it’s the unbelievably skilled craftsmen or the rich history of natural healing.
I always say I was born twice. Once in the foothills of the Himalayas, which grounded me with faith and tradition. My second birth, when I was 5, was in New York City. This land of constant change has introduced me to people and ideas that challenge me to think about the future and my place in the world. The electric energy of New York doesn’t come from the buildings or the wires. It’s the people that come through here, that live here, and that choose to make it home. New York’s greatness is in its people. I belong to both nations but as an energy that is constantly changing, I belong mostly to the universe.
Do you recall your first awareness of wanting to be an artist?
There was no one single moment. It was a very slow process of self-discovery. Having grown up in a family of successful academics, doctors, and engineers I didn’t know what wanting to be an artist meant or felt like. Over the years in my twenties, as I began to trust my instincts I felt myself evolving. Not so much as wanting to be an artist, but needing to create as one needs to breathe. It is part of my existence.
My first introduction to you was through acting. Accidental or calculated, how did it greet you?
Quite gently. The start was alarmingly simple, Wes [Anderson] asked me to be in his movie. Life Aquatic was the first film I did and it’s been an incredible adventure since then. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the finest craftsmen in the field.
Identity is in many ways a performance. Through the roles you’ve played in films, and stories you’ve told through other creations, do you consider your work biographical?
With my own stories, the work inevitably becomes autobiographical. Whether it’s ideas that I’m exploring, emotions I’m going through, or the life I’m living. Playing a role in someone else’s story is just that, someone else’s story. In my world and in my own work, I’m a central character – part of the driving force of the narrative. That’s not reflected in the world of cinema we live in. It is clear to me that if we want our own stories told we must write them.
Then we must find ways of getting them made…
After all the films you’ve done, you still don’t have an agent.
I fit outside the system and it doesn’t know what to do with me. Yet, that won’t stop me. I’ve never fit it, it’s not my interest to do so.
During spring’s quarantine, I read cinematographer Christopher Doyle ask, “if it doesn’t have integrity, who gives a shit?.” Ordinary, and yet profound in its conceptual simplicity, it’s a mantra I strive to live by, a mantra that you seem to live by. What is integrity for you?
It could be said that the fundamentals of any one of us is identity. The search for identity is the search for truth. When you can see the truth in yourself, you can recognise it in the other. You can recognise it in the world around you. This impacts your work, your very existence.
It is unfortunate that the words integrity and authenticity have become somewhat overused marketing terms.
It’s not very complicated – truth matters.
House of Waris began with jewellery if I’m not mistaken. A rather extravagant medium though injected with purpose and humanity. Would you talk a little bit about conceiving it, its mission, its evolution?
House of Waris did indeed begin with jewellery. However, I never intended on designing jewellery. As I always say, I didn’t choose this path, jewellery chose me. I fell in love with the world it allowed me to create. House of Waris started with a ring and that turned into an idea. The idea eventually became a mission: to find the best artisans in the world and preserve the world of hand craftsmanship, not as museum relics but as a way of life. Hand-worked objects of beauty that live alongside the mass-produced items of our world. To support the rare individual that finds beauty in the time it takes to make things by hand. That mission became a company and a way of life.
What drove the inspiration?
The inspiration, for all my work, has always been love and history. But we must be clear, I never claim to understand either of those two. This is my search for a better understanding. It’s jewellery and pottery that archaeologists find on their digs. It was working in whatever that I was drawn to – with objects of beauty that become an intimate part of someone’s life. With the preservation and sharing of traditions.
From the earth and back to the earth.
For years I searched the world for the best craftsmen. They made it possible. The generations of skill in their hands. The journey started in Rome where I found my first workshop. Then onto India where I found a family that has been working in jewellery for centuries. They have a love and an innate understanding of the materials. I sat with my craftsmen in Jaipur six months a year for the last five years. They’re like family to me. An incredibly skilled family. From there onto Bangkok for the most delicate setters and then somehow found my way home to NY to work with hand engravers. Eventually, I worked with them all. Goldsmiths. Stonecutters. Stone setters. Enamelers. Carpenters. Marble makers. Batik-ers. Weavers. Embroiderers. Faithful agents of tradition.
And now with tea, the approach is akin, taking a traditional practice and bringing it forward to modern times.
My audience is the same. People who want more out of life. People who understand that there is much to be learned from our history. It served our ancestors well. Our work is to reclaim that knowledge and use it to make our lives better. To not settle for the lies we’re told by the pharmaceutical giants and a government that is beholden to them. The art and precision I learned can be applied to all my work.
Designing, be it jewellery, textiles, fashion or objects has been instrumental in your creative growth. Always through a vigorously complex approach. Would you say it has defined your process?
In jewellery, I worked in millimetres. If you’re off by half a millimetre, that stone will pop out. It’s taught me to not compromise. It’s taught me to push and to persist until I get it right. However, there came a time when it was not enough just to make beautiful things with wildly talented artisans. There was a sense of personal responsibility that was always present. Working with conservation organisations, visiting projects on the ground, learning and understanding the larger issues at hand made it all the more real and urgent.
Is there ever any fear involved?
Mainly of not trying. Historically, as people, we’ve been fine saying one thing, feeling another, and doing yet another. All three can be different, and that’s the way society has functioned. But for me, personally, what I feel, what I say, and what I do have to be aligned. The time had come to turn my energy towards something more universal.
You chose elephants, or they chose you as the pattern repeats, for your consciousness-raising mission with Elephant Family, could you share the full story?
The relationship is over a decade long. It was while working on Darjeeling Limited I discovered Elephant Family. Wes asked me to make a pin for my uniform. We then sold a version of that elephant pin on Yoox to raise money for the organisation, whose mission, in part, is to facilitate coexistence between humans and wildlife across Asia. Elephant Family works with conservationists on the ground to devise ways to protect the vulnerable elephant and other endangered species from the conflicts that human presence has created. Competition between humans and wildlife for resources and space lead to deadly human-wildlife conflict. When we think about the endangered species, it’s easier to think the problem is poaching, because there are bad guys and there are victims. But the bigger problem is the fact that creatures in the wild are running out of wild spaces. Our very existence threatens the existence of all species because we require so many natural resources. Human beings are terrible, terrible creatures.
“We are the asteroid.”
The world, now more than ever, listens and understands things through commerce. How does that make you feel?
We want to shop. That’s ok – I like pretty things too. But at the same time, the version of capitalism that we’ve been sold is broken. We exist in a system that puts profit over people. A system built on stolen land with stolen labour. And everyone seems to accept it and go about their merry way.
Was that the pivotal moment that made you rethink the business you’ve built?
It was time to step away from that system and try to create something that uplifts people as part of its existence. Something that celebrates the planet and its offerings. Something that addresses the very human-made planetary crisis we exist in. Humanity out of balance creates a planet out of balance. An agenda that supports the ongoing destruction of our planet – not just climate change, but deforestation, overdevelopment and widespread killing of plant and animal species and eventually all of us. It’s our collective unawareness of what the problem is: us. Over time, we’ve been removed from ourselves, from each other, to create ‘the other.’ First, the other is another human being, then the other becomes wildlife, becomes nature. We look at it as separate things when it needs to just be one.
In Russian tradition where I’m from, as well as British, where I grew up, tea is completely embedded in the culture. It’s about savouring the moment. I imagine it’s been embedded in you all along, too?
At any family gathering, I remember, tea was served. After dinners, tea was served. During laughter and celebration, tea was served. During quiet moments, in solemn moments, in moments of grief. It was always there. In my travels for jewellery production in Jaipur, or when I went to Delhi or Bombay, tea was served. When I went to meet with the elephant organisations and local conservationists, tea was served. It was right in front of me. The answer had always been right there.
And in many ways what perfect timing to bring House of Waris Botanicals into the world now, as a lot of us long for connection, ritual and those little things. What’s its concept?
The whole world has been told to slow down. That has been one of our central themes. Our speed, desire for shortcuts, need for productivity has led down a dangerous path. We’re disconnected from nature, thereby, making us disconnected from ourselves. We want to show people that they have power over their wellbeing. This is an exercise in slowing down. This is an exercise in taking control. Our work is informed by traditional medicine practices like Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, which incorporate herbal remedies. Our innovation is to give access to the ancient plant sciences and reframe the knowledge to be applicable to our modern-day lives. To say to our community – we’ve always had the answers.
There is so much about the simple pleasure that we have forgotten, that we’ve neglected, that as a society we have pushed into the realm of taboo. Pleasure often reads as naughty, yet it’s essential to our existence, happiness, and freedom. A tea ritual is about that flavourful pleasure, an internal honouring that is also wellbeing.
We worked with our herbalists to create delicious adaptogenic blends of tea that help you respond to external stressors and bring your body back to balance. Each of us has an opportunity to create better habits. Better structures. Better lives. Don’t settle for going back to normal. Normal is not good enough. Normal is killing us. Let’s break down old ways that clearly aren’t working.
When you look retrospectively at all the works that you have produced, what is the lasting identifiable obsession, the central motif?
My work is simply the search for the Holy Grail. Eternal happiness. The energy and spirit of eternal youth. Infinite love. NBD.
What have you learned from failure?
No one cares. At least for very long. Everyone is too busy in their own worlds. At the very least failure provides the greatest opportunity for learning. It gives you a chance to stand up and try again.
2020 has brought a lot of isolation, and urge for togetherness. From the creative standpoint though, this rolling aimlessness we are experiencing right now in our homes is in many ways a dream for an artist. It’s an opportunity. And I wonder what your thoughts are on it.
We are in the middle of a generation-defining crisis, unified by a common threat but separated by the inequities we have comfortably accepted for centuries. On Zoom calls and Instagram live sessions, people acknowledge their privileges as a means to by-pass responsibility and complicity. We read about the great pause. All over the world, reduced human activity has allowed the planet to begin healing itself, proving just how impactful human actions are on the environment. The biggest question for me is, will we take any of the lessons learned during this re-set with us on the other side, whenever that may be? Will they just be anecdotes at a cocktail party or serve as blueprints for a new world?
Will we evolve into a higher state of consciousness collectively?
We must. Through personal responsibility for the world around us.
Explore House of Waris Botanicals’ seven beautiful blends at https://houseofwaris.com