Monday, December 18, 2006

Dracula:What came before

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova - 642 pages - Little, Brown and Company

The novel opens with a 16-year old girl who discovers in her father's library, a cache of letters and a book with a dragon woodcut in its center. This is a story about her, her father and his mentor – all on a quest to learn more about a dark power, at the heart of which, is Vlad the Impaler, the source of the legend of Dracula. Although there are fleeting references to Bram Stoker's Dracula, this novel stands apart for its dash of realism and much history to make you wonder if the entire story is, after all, true.

Vlad III (Tepes) of Wallachia (now part of Romania), lived between 1431 and 1476, unleashing much terror among his people with his bizarre torture techniques, which bestowed on him the title attached to his name – The Impaler. His primary enmity was with the Ottoman empire, in particular, Sultan Mehmed II. The novel at one level, outlines the life, death and the supposed after-life exploits of Vlad. At another level, it's a mission is to bring to an end, Vlad's reign of vampirism.

This book is as much a voyage for the reader as it is for the protagonist, her father, Paul and his mentor, Bartolomeo Rossi. In the midst of all the action, linked to the three main characters, is Helen who plays more than a small part in the shaping of the story. A host of other characters pepper the pages, to move the story forward – from vampire librarians to secret agents to monks to a slew of academics from Istanbul, Bulgaria and Oxford. Where there are academics, needless to say, there are crumbling documents, cryptic maps and many, many yellowing letters.

Kostova writes straight, with just that touch of description of places and things that goes to move this novel a notch above popular fiction. There are disappearances, coincidences, monasteries with secret crypts, stories within stories, paths that criss-cross across decades. There are shifts in timeline, perspective and setting right through the book. The story sweeps across Amsterdam, Oxford, Istanbul, then Romania, Bulgaria and France. The story begins in 1972 and ends in 1476. However, it all ties in rather well, to make one good, albeit weighty, read.

If you were ever curious about the Dracula legend or love your historical fiction, this may prove to be an excellent choice. At 642 pages, The Historian is over twice the size of an average read, but may prove scintillating company for long journeys, afternoons of leisure and weekend marathon reads. 

(edited version published on December 18, 2005 in dna.sunday, Mumbai)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Sanjna Kapoor

In the happy jumble that's her office, amidst telephone calls, cash vouchers and work on the website, Sanjna Kapoor got talking about Prithvi Theatre. She was between two theatre festivals - The Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai has just ended the day before and she leaves for Delhi where she's organizing the festival there.

Sanjna is part of the Kapoor family, considered by many as the first family of Indian cinema with actors such as Prithviraj Kapoor, his sons Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor (Sanjna's father) and their children.

Sanjna's grandfather, Prithviraj Kapoor started Prithvi as a theatre group. When the touring theatre company of the Kendals, Shakespearana came to India, Prithviraj Kapoor's son, Shashi Kapoor met, fell in love with and married the Kendals' daughter, Jennifer. Herself an accomplished stage actress, Jennifer was to spearhead Prithvi Theatre's revival as a venue when Prithviraj Kapoor passed away. Sanjna was five at that time.

The Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai was instituted to nurture the development of theatre in India. It is primarily a theatre venue, but goes beyond the function of a mere venue by supporting projects aimed at growth of theatre in India. Currently, Prithvi hosts over 400 performances a year by over 50 theatre groups. It boasts an average audience of 80% of capacity, which is approximately 65000 people per year. Since 1993, the organization has been involved in developing alternate performance venues with the objective of taking theatre to the audience.

Sanjna has memories of having class picnics at the theatre, and playing 'chor-police' (cops & robbers). "At the age of nine, I was running around barefoot with my Lhasa Apso in the plot where the Prithvi Theatre as we know it now, was being constructed. I remember looking at the architectural plans and seeing it all come together like a jigsaw puzzle. I was on the periphery of the actual building of the theatre." She says.

Later, when the venue opened its doors to theatre groups, she remembers going for late night shows with her parents and falling asleep on the seats at the back, surrounded by the reassuring sounds of a play in production.

In the first festival in 1983, Sanjna was fifteen and actively participated as a volunteer and recounts it as a fantastic experience. Sanjna went on to act in a few Hindi movies, has been involved in the creation of two books, one on the Ranthambore National Park and the other on Masai Mara in Kenya. She has also helped compile the photographs for her father's book, Prithviwallahs, published in 2004, co-authored with Deepa Gehlot.

While she's been involved with Prithvi for a long time, she officially came on board as a Director of the organization in 1990.

She counts as her inspiration, her maternal grandfather, Geoffrey Kendal, who had his own theatre company. She recounts, "He was clearly my inspiration, he was my hero. He traveled around the country, and told me stories of his experiences. He had the ability to make the most mundane hamburger sound like the most exotic meal. It's these stories that completely whetted my appetite for wanting to be part of theatre, sadly, wanting to be part of a traveling theatre company. I say sadly because it doesn't really exist in reality. My dream was always to have a bus filled with actors and props and costumes, drive around the country and perform wherever we can. That may not be possible just for the economics of things."

Sanjna now lives in Delhi and visits Mumbai to manage the theatre, spending more time whenever there's a big event like the Prithvi Theatre Festival to organize.
Sanjna admits to having many ideas to move Prithvi forward. "One is eternally exhausted. Sometimes, we're overburdening ourselves with too many activities, but there's never a dull day!"
(An edited version appeared in the December 2006 issue of 'At A Glance'. Photographs by author.)