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Picture Perfect
Text by Sona Bahadur and Photographs by Anushka Menon
Published: Volume 16, Issue 11, November, 2008

She brings writers and visual artists to book. As the director of Roli, leading publishers of illustrated books, Priya Kapoor lives a life surrounded by tomes. But there’s nothing remotely nerdy about the 29-year old, whose keen eye for beautiful words and images informs her distinctive style sensibility as well, discovers Sona Bahadur

Somehow, it’s easy to associate Priya Kapoor with sumptuous books on maharajas and polo and dynastic families. One can picture her as a history undergrad at the beautiful 16th century heritage building of Royal Holloway, close to the Windsor Castle in London. Or imagine her excavating rare jewellery antiques from the depths of the archives of Boucheron, Cartier and Louis Vuitton in Paris while researching for Made for Maharajas, a coffee-table tome that documents the connection between Indian royalty and Western luxury brands.

Clad in a simple black ensemble enlivened by burnt orange lakh bangles on this day, the petite director of Roli exudes a laid back charm that fits right in with her refined world of luxury illustrated books. As I discover during our rendezvous, it was her love for pure writing that made her abandon a career as a journalist in favour of book publishing. “After working for a year at The Indian Express, I realised reporting was not for me. You have to first dig out the story; the writing comes much later. But my interest lay primarily in writing.”

Joining Roli, owned by her father Pramod Kapoor and renowned for its illustrated titles, was the obvious career choice after she graduated with a master’s degree in media and communications from London School of Economics. Instead, she first learnt the rectos and versos of book publishing, and about the business as a whole, at Routledge, UK.

The decision to return to India and Roli in 2004 was an instinctive one. Four years into her job, Kapoor feels her eye is better trained to what makes a good editor. “Things which were difficult in the beginning come more naturally. I don’t claim to know everything but I can take responsibility for a book.

Though commissioning takes up much of her time, she is proud of the books she has researched and edited herself, among them The Nehrus: Personal Histories, a pictorial biography of the Nehru-Gandhi family written by Mushirul Hasan, and Made for Maharajas, authored by Dr Amin Jaffar.

As a publishing professional, a vital part of Kapoor’s job invoves interacting with creative folk — colleagues, writers, designers, photographers, freelancers, as well as the many people who approach her with new book ideas. How does this New-Age publisher approach style? Dressing is as much about comfort as about a reflection of her personality, likes and tastes. “I think each person can define fashion for themselves. It doesn’t have to be about designer labels.”

Though she inherits her Indian sensibility from her family, Kapoor traces her love for saris to the time when she returned from London and began working in India. “After London, where you end up wearing black, brown, grey and everyone looks the same, the sari was so colourful, fun and dynamic. The choice is incredible from Kerala saris to Maheshwaris to block prints.”

Handwoven saris, which she loves to accessorise with colourful necklaces, bags, funky necklaces, earrings and glass bangles, are the preferred choice at book launches. She recalls wearing an orange and pink sari with a brocade blouse for Roli’s recent launch, I Witness, by Kapil Sibal. “You can never go wrong with saris.” Bling is “allowed” for occasions but is restricted to mukaish work from Lucknow. And though she admires the work of sari designers like Sabyasachi, Anamika Khanna and Anand Kabra, “Swarovski on saris just don’t do it for me!”

For book fairs, she opts for formal Western wear, and occasionally outfits by Manish Arora and Rajesh Pratap Singh – she wore an Arora skirt with a black top to the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. Nachiket Barve, Anamika Khanna and Shantanu and Nikhil are other sartorial favourites. She likes Delhi’s India International Centre for meeting authors, though GK II market, which houses the Roli office, provides plenty of great options like Diva and Smoke House Grill.

Roli books, which bought over renowned fiction publisher India Ink four years ago, is now expanding into children’s books. Kapoor’s long-term vision is to continue as an independent publisher which does all kinds of books — illustrated, biographies, fiction, young adult fiction and children’s books — with an edge. Upcoming titles she is excited about include a definitive book on saris, a series on photo essays, Made for Mughals by Susan Stronge, and Zubin Mehta’s autobiography. Travelling, movies, dance classes, yoga are all part of leisure time.

With book launches becoming the stuff of Page 3 reams, publishing in India has acquired a sheen of glamour. The pragmatist in Kapoor doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. As she argues, it’s necessary to create awareness when a new book comes out. “If the best way to get newspapers to write about it is through launch parties, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. People can have varied perceptions, but the fact is that a good book and good writing will always be considered more than just gloss and glitz.” Period.

Jewel In Her Crown
Priya Kapoor recounts the experience of researching for Made For Maharajas

“There were many layers to the research I carried out for Made For Maharajas, which focusses on rare, one-off custom made pieces for Indian royalty. I approached luxury houses in Europe, various private archives and museums and the many royal families in India for this book. The most interesting part of the research was to piece together the complete story of the object – from finding a reference to its details – maker, customer, year – to where it is today and finally finding a visual.

Because I was researching primarily luxury goods which included jewellery, I had to be very sensitive while approaching the families. But once I had won their trust and had access to the basements and storage areas, it was a lot of fun. Having members of the families as my guides made it all the more interesting.

The people at Boucheron, Cartier and Louis Vuitton in Paris were very helpful. Cartier, Paris, the first ones I visited, were proud of their India connection. There were times when all I had was a reference to a piece that was created by Cartier – no visuals – and I would urge Veronique Sacuto and Michel Aliaga, who worked in the Patrimony Department, to look deep into their archives for that particular piece. They would do their best to find it.

Louis Vuitton loved the idea of the book so much that they became partners in hosting all the launches worldwide. One of the surprise finds was at Smythson of Bond Street – they have albums full of stationery letter, Christmas cards, invitation cards, etc, heads for various Indian royals – there was stationery customised according to the palaces. For example, some had letterheads for each of the palaces (summer homes etc, while visiting London, etc). One of the most fascinating was for the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who was quite the aviator. He had an invitation card made by Smythson which had the royal crest and an illustration of a plane and read: ‘Will you fly to sherry and cocktail with us on ….. at …..(Air Conditions permitting)’ He would provide air transportation for his guests!’

M Tonnelot who was the head of the archives at Boucheron, spoke very little English but was excited to show me the huge leather-bound folder of hand painted jewellery options, which were created for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. Each option was magnificent. The stones painted were of actual proportion; it was amazing to see their sizes! The archives are located above the Boucheron boutique at Place Vendome in Paris. It was a memorable visit. Unfortunately, M Tonnelot passed away before the book was published.”

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